American organist Christopher Houlihan, an incredibly gifted performer and leader among professional organists of his generation, performed a multifaceted recital at Rollins College, launching the 78th Annual Bach Festival.
The Friday evening recital exhibited the Knowles Memorial Chapel's impressive organ, masterfully played by a 25-year old star who has received unanimous acclaim from the likes of the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.
Houlihan exhibited a degree of control and ambidexterity that was truly frightening, especially when his emphatic gestures intensified during Bach's forte overlapping webs of sound, as is characteristic of the climactic moments of his organ showpieces.
Opening with Saint-Saëns' Fantasy in E-flat major, the performer's interpretation of the piece was demonstrably virtuosic. Houlihan's coordination of all four limbs was staggering to watch, as he smoothly swayed from section to section, never faltering in the multi-textured demands of the music.
Impressive as this was, it was almost dwarfed by the fiendish technical demands of the piece that followed: J.S. Bach's Trio Sonata in C Major, BWV 529. "There is a melody playing in the right hand, a melody playing in the left hand and a bass line in the feet," said Houlihan when he introduced the piece. The demanding piece basically forces the performer to split his brain into a three-part (sometimes four) entity, consisting of autonomous, yet related, melodic parts.
It was thrilling to see his feet moving across the pedal board, as each hand played a different melody simultaneously. The slow movement presented a kind of dialog between two voices, fluctuating and looking together for resolution. The finale, though, was arguably the single most impressive moment of the recital. The heavily contrapuntal movement consists of a relentless barrage of 16th notes - each calculated with precision - that would be difficult enough to play one line at a time.
Ravel's Vocalise in the Form of a Habanera, arranged by Houlihan himself, provided an adequate change of mood to the recital.
Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 - also performed one year ago at Knowles Chapel by English organist Clive Driskill-Smith - opens with a frightening onslaught on the pipes, intensified by richly sustained pedal tones on the bass. Houlihan's performance of the fugue was precise and pure, expressively utilizing the incredible range of the organ that makes the piece so epic.
For the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, Houlihan took full advantage of the different organ stops (which admit air to different sets of pipes). It was the most colorful piece, in that way, as it featured a rich use of different timbres. Starting with an ominous line on the low register, different sets of variations start to emerge over a recurring bass line. The most impressive moments were the climactic dissonant chords toward the end - sustained for a few seconds and strongly increasing the dramatic effect - and finally resolving down to the home tonality.
To close the recital, Houlihan tackled Liszt's monstrous Fantasy and Fugue on 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.' The lengthy piece, based on a chorale from a Meyerbeer opera, has a definite structure. It is a more comprehensive work, as a single-movement composition, than the rest of the selections for the evening. The young organist tackled the demanding work with style and an amazing mental acuity. The piece starts by hinting at the main theme and eventually develops into a full-fledged study of melody, harmony and texture, testing the performer's endurance.
The 78th Annual Bach Festival continues on Friday 22 and Saturday 23, with an all-Mozart program. For more information, visit www.bachfestivalflorida.org
To visit Christopher Houlihan's website, click here.
To read a review of last season's all-Bach organ recital, featuring British organist Clive Driskill-Smith, click here.