ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With his fingers dancing across three keyboards as his feet shuffle the pedals, fans have called Christopher Houlihan the Fred Astaire of the pipe organ.
The acclaimed organist will bring his keyboard fireworks to St. John’s United Methodist Church next Sunday.
The Wall Street Journal has compared Houlihan’s delivery to the “homogeneous string section in a fine symphony orchestra.”
The 27-year-old musician studied piano at 7, then switched instruments after discovering a mammoth pipe organ in a next door church.
“I became fascinated,” he said in a telephone interview from his New York home. “I just got hooked.
“It was big and it was loud,” he said, “and it had all these buttons and pedals for your feet. Now I love that it has such a range of sounds. It’s like playing a whole orchestra.”
He’ll open the concert with American composer Leo Sowerby’s “Toccata.”
“He was sort of the ‘it’ composer of the 1920s-’30s,” Houlihan said. “He won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a fun piece and an exciting and showy way to open a program.”
You can’t give an organ recital without Bach, and Houlihan will perform the master’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
“It’s these incredibly expressive set of variations,” he said. “It builds and builds in such incredible ways. It keeps you on the edge of your seats.”
Louis Vierne’s “Romance and Final” from his Symphony No. 4, Op. 32 is a “symphony for the organ,” Houlihan said.
Vierne was an early-20th-century composer and organist who was born blind.
“He became the organist at Nortre Dame in Paris,” he said. “It’s not exactly like a symphony, but it has all the typical movements of a symphony on the organ.
“His music is very personal,” Houlihan continued. “He was a very depressed person. He knew a lot of tragedy. But when he’s feeling happy or romantic, it’s tangible.”
Houlihan studied with Grammy Award-winning organist Paul Jacobs at the Juilliard School, where he earned a master’s degree. During a year in France, he studied at the Versailles Conservatory. He is artist-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.