Young organist celebrates Vierne with North American tour

July 03, 2012

Christopher Houlihan will perform the complete Vierne organ symphonies this weekend at Rockefeller Chapel.

It’s summertime and Chicago’s concert calendar is easy, with most significant classical events hailing from either the Grant Park Music Festival or Ravinia.

But what if the summer symphonic fare was broken up by something really unusual—like a two-night marathon featuring the complete organ symphonies of Louis Vierne?

Oddly enough, that’s exactly what is in the offing this week. Organist Christopher Houlihan will perform all six Vierne symphonies in two free concerts Friday and Saturday night at Rockefeller Chapel, marking the 75th anniversary of the French composer’s death.

“These French organ symphonies are just great pieces,” says the 24-year-old Connecticut native, among the most gifted of today’s young generation of organists. “They’re really like complete orchestral symphonies for a solo instrument.

“The reason Vierne and French Romantic composers of his day wrote symphonies was because the organ they knew is like a whole orchestra. There are flutes and strings and oboes and clarinets. I can’t think of a more exciting, dynamic and colorful solo instrument.”

Louis Vierne

In his lifetime (1870-1937) Louis Vierne (pronounced Vee-ERN) was known both as organist—and one of the greatest improvisers of all time—as well as composer. Born almost completely blind, Vierne would compose on massive manuscript paper, later resorting to Braille, as his eyesight failed completely.

The French composer was organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral for nearly four decades, yet his life was one of almost unremitting hardship. At the height of his powers, a street accident in Paris shattered his leg, forcing Vierne to painfully relearn his pedal technique. In 1937, Vierne suffered a fatal heart attack while performing his Stele pour un enfant defunt at Notre-Dame.

Vierne’s six organ symphonies are his greatest achievement, vast works that for their kaleidoscopic hues, imagination, idiomatic writing and unsentimental style, have never been equaled.

“Besides the fact that they’re colorful and orchestral, Vierne completely exploits the organ to its fullest potential.” says Houlihan.

“The music is also very personal and emotional. Vierne had a very sad and tragic life and that concerns his music quite a bit.

“But there’s also happiness and humor in his music, and even a kind of silly joy. His music really explores the range of human emotions and I think it’s very easy for a listener to relate to his music.”

There’s also a progression and growing complexity in the music that one can chart from the First Organ Symphony to the last, No. 6. “As time went on his music became more personal and more and more chromatic, even pushing the boundaries of tonality in a lot of ways,” says Houlihan.

Among Houlihan’s personal favorites is No. 5. “It’s not heard very often at all. It’s more complex than any of the others and it’s the most orchestral. The slow movement is just gorgeous with a shimmering string sound and a beautiful middle section.”

“I also love the Intermezzo of the Third Symphony because it’s very quirky, with a sort of mutation sound with harmonic pitches above the foundation. There are a lot of moments throughout these works that are very special.”

Houlihan graduated with honors from Trinity College where he studied with John Rose. He completed his graduate work at The Juilliard School in New York studying with Paul Jacobs. Houlihan is currently artist-in-residence at St. Ignatius of Antioch (Episcopal) in New York.

Chicago is the third of six cities, Houlihan is performing the Vierne cycle in this summer, with future dates to come in Los Angeles, Montreal and Dallas. This will be Houlihan’s first opportunity to perform on the mighty 8,565-pipe E. M. Skinner Rockefeller organ.

“Preparing this much music on a strange organ is a big challenge. It’s like re-orchestrating the music each time I play it.

“It’s quite a bit of music. But each concert will last two hours and is digestible. And because I’m playing them in odd and even groupings, you’ll really get the variety of periods of Vierne’s style.”

Houlihan has recorded Vierne’s Organ Symphony No. 2 (Towerhill) but at some point would like the opportunity to set down the complete Vierne symphonies. “I’d like to record them on the right organ at the right time.”

Christopher Houlihan will perform Vierne’s organ symphonies 7:30 p.m. Friday (Nos. 1, 3 and 5) and Saturday (Nos. 2, 4 and 6) at Rockefeller Chapel in Hyde Park. Admission is free.

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