The titanic 1954 Schantz organ at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark is one of the most coveted instruments in the world. To witness an organist capable of maximizing its vast capabilities is one of the most thrilling concert experiences in this hemisphere. Yesterday evening, to open the fiftieth anniversary season of this nation’s longest-running cathedral concert series, Christopher Houlihan delivered an epic, literally breathtaking performance of reinvented standard repertoire and unexpected treats.
With over ten thousand pipes spread from one end of the cathedral to the other, there are few instruments that can deliver surround-sound stereo at such gale force. There were several instances where Houlihan literally pulled out all the stops, which was nothing short of exhilatating, but the ride getting there was just as entertaining, and revelatory.
He bookended the show with Bach – an emphatic, triumphant encore, as if to say with a grin, “I own this space now” – and a reinvention of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Since organs of the composers’s era were considerably smaller, there’s no question he would have at the very least approved of how imaginatively Houlihan varied his textures, from the otherworldly rustic melancholy of the introduction, through ghostly flutes, stygian pedalwork and mighty blasts of brass from the trompette en chamade located like a bullseye, front and center.
“You have no idea of how much fun I’ve had practicing for this concert,” Houlihan confided to the crowd. “To be alone in this cathedral with just the organ is…” he was at a loss for words, a kid in a candy store. So he let the music do the talking, beginning with a similarly colorful, dynamic tour of Schumann’s Four Sketches for pedal-piano, opus 58. Typically played on the organ rather than the quaint hybrid instrument they were written for, Houlihan elevated them with appropriate gravitas and majesty through swirls and swells, lushness contrasting with a hushed, spare quality in places, taking full advantage of the multiplicity of textural options.
Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a salute to medieval British composer Thomas Tallis, had similar dynamic richness, Houlihan playing with a remarkable robustness that brought to mind the central theme’s similarity to Jehan Alain’s famous quasi-toccata Le Jardin Suspendu. That set the stage for a smartly counterintuitive triptych of excerpts from the symphonies of Louis Vierne, the iconic French organist and composer.
There was great historical precedent for that choice. Houlihan’s teacher, John Rose, founded the cathedral concert series a half-century ago and was in the audience. In the mid-70s, he’d staged a marathon performance of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies in this space. But rather than brimming with the angst and wrath that Vierne can channel with unparalleled intensity, Houlihan concentrated on disparate moods as well as Vierne’s unexpectedly puckish sense of humor.
Whether intentional or not, it also made a good capsule survey of the development of Vierne’s compositional style. The Scherzo, from Symphony No. 2, was gleaming, pouncing and insistent, proto-Messiaen without all the birdsong quotes. The Romance, from Symphony No. 4, was a vast nightscape delivered with silken expressiveness. Finally, Houlihan threw caution to the wind and attacked the Toccata from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie with a stiletto intensity. Yet even as this hurricane of sound grew from bluster toward sheer terror, there was an immutable, stunning balance, Houlihan confident amid the torrents in the very eye of the storm.
The cathedral concert series continues on Oct 21 at 4 PM with choral works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi performed by a stellar cast including Theodore Chletsos, Sandra Mercado, Jorge Ocasio, Elizabeth Perryman, and Klára Zíková-English; suggested donation is $15. Houlihan’s next recital is on Sept 28 at 7:30 PM with the Festival Orchestra, performing the mighty Poulenc Organ Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. at Huntington St. in Hartford, Connecticut