ArtsATL > Music > Q&A: Rising star Christopher Houlihan, who’ll kick off Atlanta Summer Organ Festival

Q&A: Rising star Christopher Houlihan, who’ll kick off Atlanta Summer Organ Festival

Christopher Houlihan

Organist Christopher Houlihan will perform the first recital of the 2013 Atlanta Summer Organ Festival on Wednesday at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, just west of the North Avenue MARTA Station. It’s the first of four organ recitals in this iteration of the annual festival, spread across four Wednesdays in June and July at different churches with different organists.

The three others will feature organists Jack Mitchener on June 26 at Cathedral of St. Philip, Isabelle Demers on July 17 at Cathedral of Christ the King and Olivier Latry on July 24 at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. All four recitals will commence at 7:30 p.m. and be an hour long, followed by a dessert reception.

As for the 25-year-old Houlihan, a fast-rising star among the ranks of young organists, the All Saints’ event will mark his Atlanta debut. He’ll perform J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542; a transcription of the “Andantino” from Debussy’s String Quartet, Opus 10; the Fantasy in E-flat Major by Saint-Saëns; and the Organ Symphony No. 3 in F-sharp Minor, Opus 28, by Vierne.

ArtsATL recently spoke with the affable Houlihan by telephone.

ArtsATL: What got you started on pipe organ?

Christopher Houlihan: I saw the organ in church when I was about 10 years old. I’d been taking piano lessons for a few years, but something about the organ seemed so much cooler. There were more keyboards, things for your feet to do — and so much louder than the piano. I was hooked by it. It’s such a fascinating instrument. There are so many colors and sounds. In a way it’s like having a whole orchestra to play myself. I can’t think of a more exciting instrument.

ArtsATL: You began your organ studies with John Rose at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and he was a student of Virgil Fox. How does this particular pedagogical lineage inform your own approach to the pipe organ?

Houlihan: Virgil had a reputation of being a great showman, but he was also a wonderful teacher. He encouraged his students to be musical and develop their own ideas about the pieces they were playing. Something that John passed on to me is the idea of really trying to make the organ sing. The organ can come off being very cold, [and making it] sound musical is very difficult because it is the only instrument where we really have no physical connection to the sound we’re producing. With the organ, really, we’re just controlling this machine to make music. Overcoming that is one of the great challenges of playing the organ.

You can hold a note down on the organ and it will go on forever, and so, for me, trying to think about making it sing and taking natural breaths is part of what I do. It is about trying to infuse this instrument with breath, with singing, to try to make it human, to give it life.

ArtsATL: You are making your Atlanta debut with this recital, so this will be the first time you have ever played the organ at All Saints’ Episcopal. Facing any pipe organ for the first time must pose specific challenges.

Houlihan: Since every organ is totally different from the next, I have to show up a day or two in advance and spend many, many hours, really, re-orchestrating anew these pieces I’ve already played many times. That can be frustrating when you don’t know what you’re walking into, but for me it’s very exciting. Every organ has its own personality.

ArtsATL: By contrast, your next recital, on July 2, will be on a very familiar instrument, the organ at Trinity College in Hartford.

Houlihan: That’s where I had my first organ lesson, at age 12, and where I went to college. I’m really excited to be going back.

ArtsATL: In that performance, you’ll premiere a work written for you, the “Steel Symphony” by Patrick Greene, a composer who was a fellow student in your days at Trinity. Then you’ll play it again July 6 in Columbia, South Carolina. Tell us about your interest in new music for organ.

Houlihan: I feel really strongly that organists need to do everything to encourage composers to write for the organ. It really is an intimidating instrument to a composer, because every organ sounds so different. Patrick did a great job [with the “Steel Symphony”], and I really want to do more to encourage composers to write for the organ. We need new music.

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