Organist Christopher Houlihan has world-class chops and the kind of passion that most people who tackle playing the king of the instruments have in abundance. Houlihan’s strength is that he’s able to communicate that passion, not just with fast fingers and feet, but by engaging the audience with plenty of insight into both craft and history. At his Chelsea concert Thursday night at Holy Apostles Church, he recounted the tragic tale of composer Louis Vierne, who collapsed at the console at Notre Dame and landed on the very bottom pedal, serenading the audience with an ominous drone for more than a minute until someone figured out something wasn’t right and discovered his lifeless body. That incident is well known to fans of the organ repertoire; Houlihan also shared several other gloomy facts about the composer, whose symphonic cycle he played to much acclaim both in the organ demimonde and beyond it a couple of years ago. And then he followed with three movements from Vierne’s Symphony No. 4.
Houlihan explained that these would be somewhat uncharacteristic for the typically turbulent, sometimes wrathful Vierne, and they were: a mutedly balletesque take of the Menuet, a lively yet meticulous romp through the Romance and then the finale, which returned with a roar to emotional terrain more familiar to the composer.
Bookending the concert with pieces by Bach made sense, considering the darkly baroque colors of the organ. Houlihan described the popular Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 as a series of kaleidoscopic variations that went off on innumerable interesting tangents, then backed that up with a rippling, steady attack, making imaginative use of high woodwind voicings on the first part of the fugue. In a clever bit of programming, he also bookended a transcription of Brahms’ choral prelude No. 11 – the composer’s saturnine final work – with an early piece, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, an ambitious exercise in counterpoint.
Houlihan likened Henry Martin‘s Prelude and Fugue in B Flat Major to “what Gershwin would have done with a prelude and fugue,” and he was right on the money with that too. The world premiere of a commission from Michael Barone of NPR’s Pipedreams, from a series of twelve of those pieces in every key, after Bach, it turned out to be an intriguingly orchestrated series of circling phrases that eventually loosened with a ragtime-inflected flair. At the end of the program, the crowd – an especially large one – gave Houlihan a standing ovation and wouldn’t let up until he’d come back for the encore. The organ world needs more ambassadors like him.