While the frequently asserted claim that the pipe organ has fallen out of favor in American churches may be true, our music schools continue to produce virtuoso organists. Christopher Houlihan, one of the newly acclaimed rising stars, gave a fair sampling of his wares in recital Tuesday (June 30) for the American Guild of Organists’ West Region Convention at San Diego’s First United Methodist Church.
At age 27, Houlihan already can boast competition prizes, lauded concert tours and recordings under his belt. His account of Louis Vierne’s Fourth Organ Symphony in G Minor, one of the major contributions of the French Romantic school, clearly established his muscular, polished technique and keen ability to shape large, complex musical essays cogently.
If your notion of French organ symphonies is defined by Widor’s giddy Toccata from his Fifth Organ Symphony, Vierne’s G Minor Organ Symphony will demolish that shallow assessment of the genre in a few moments’ time. Dark, ominous, and even occasionally ferocious, this organ symphony deserves the subtitle “tragic,” although in the century since Vierne composed the work, it has failed to collect a sobriquet.
Houlihan skillfully deployed the ample resources of the church’s grand instrument, built by the local firm of L. W. Blackinton and Associates, choosing potent reed choruses with bite and snarl to underscore the conflict of the symphony’s more aggressive movements. His visceral, unrelenting drive of the final movement could not have delivered a more satisfying conclusion to a probing symphonic journey.
Although the program’s first half was built around several preludes and fugues, it seemed unfocused and eclectic. An obscure Brahms Prelude and Fugue in A Minor—a student work, perhaps—did not show the composer at his best, and a single chorale prelude from Brahms’ Op. 122 chorale prelude collection suggested a lost child waiting to be reclaimed at an amusement park’s front gate. Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major, a recent work by the American composer Henry Martin proved unremarkable, save for its jazzy fugue subject.
To balance the Vierne Fourth Organ Symphony, Houlihan sagely chose J. S. Bach’s monumental Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548. For a performer so recently schooled, his approach to Bach performance struck me as surprisingly retrograde, relying on an endless legato that was the absolute requirement for organ students in the 1950s and 1960s. Well, there was a small break between the prelude and the fugue, but more articulation of phrasing throughout this work would have made his performance more thoughtful and less hypnotizing.
Bouncing back and forth between the powerful organ in the rear gallery and the lighter divisions in the front of the large church provided more distraction than logical musical contrast. But his metrical pulse was rock steady, and he clearly communicated the grandeur of Bach’s mighty prelude.