Organ virtuoso Christopher Houlihan will be in Washington this weekend for a recital at First Baptist Church.
He lives in Queens, New York but is on the road more often than not. We caught up by phone with the 26-year-old during a rehearsal break two weeks ago in Hartford, Conn. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Do you have an organ at home?
CHRISTOPHER HOULIHAN: No. I practice at a church on the Upper West Side where I’m artist in residence. I practice there and play for them a few times a year. I’m on the road too much to have a regular church job.
BLADE: Is it far from your place? Is it like many of us are with the gym — if it’s too much hassle to get there, we don’t go as often as we should?
HOULIHAN: It’s a subway ride but it works out OK. It gets me out of my apartment. If I were a violinist, I’d just pick up my instrument and practice. But I get to practice in all these amazing spaces, which is much more inspiring than just sitting in my apartment. I like it that practicing takes me to these beautiful spaces.
BLADE: The organ at First Baptist is new. How long will you need to familiarize yourself with it before your recital?
HOULIHAN: I’ll be arriving on Friday afternoon. I never know how long it will take with a new organ. I estimate needing more time when it’s a larger instrument. I’ll be practicing late into the night on Friday and probably Saturday as well.
BLADE: Some young organists say they’re tired of having to constantly learn a new instrument while most seem to accept that it’s part of the deal. Are you frustrated by it?
HOULIHAN: It can be frustrating. Believe me, I’ve had situations where I’m really frustrated because the organ I’m playing can’t do the things I want it to do or it might not be a great instrument. But pianists have to do deal with that too in some ways. Of course organs are much more different. But at the same time, it can also be incredibly rewarding. I think of it like being a conductor and working with different orchestras. Some, maybe, the woodwinds are weak. With others, it might be the brass. … Others you play with are just stunning and inspiring and wonderful. The site specificity, the uniqueness of each instrument, brings so much more to the idea of going to hear an organ recital so each performance ends up being different from the rest.
BLADE: Is it sort of like driving a rental car and you can’t figure out how to turn the wipers on?
HOULIHAN: Sort of. I have that problem in rental cars all the time. It can be scary but exciting.
BLADE: Do you have a favorite organ builder or company?
HOULIHAN: No, but I have a soft spot for Austin because I’ve played a lot of them and the first organ I had lessons on was an Austin.
BLADE: Do you play from memory?
HOULIHAN: For the most part. … It’s a lot harder to change registrations if I have to read the music too.
BLADE: Does it come naturally as you practice or is memorizing a significant part of the rehearsal process?
HOULIHAN: It’s never a skill that came naturally. I had to develop it, but it’s part of the learning process. … I find once I internalize the piece that way, I’m able to digest it better.
BLADE: Isn’t the thought of blanking out terrifying? I suppose it happens occasionally on the stage for actors.
HOULIHAN: Everyone has those scary moments sometimes but you just deal with it and that’s really the only answer. It can be terrifying, but you move forward and get over it.
BLADE: When you’re playing standard repertoire that so many great organists have played over the years, how do you bring something new to it or do you think in those terms?
HOULIHAN: I don’t necessarily try to be different. I just try to be honest to my personality and try to play it like I want to play it. … I just try to listen to my instincts and play it the way I think it should be played. That may be different from other interpretations or very similar, but I just try to be honest to the music and to myself.
BLADE: It seems the gulf is widening between the world of organ music aficionados and the general public. There are obviously folks who are really into it and can geek out and talk ad infinitum, but so many of the media questions asked of organists are stuff like, “How would you describe this for somebody who’s never been to an organ recital before?” I know you’ve had that question. Whereas nobody on ESPN asks pro athletes to describe their event for someone who’s never been to a football or baseball game. Do you feel this is true? If so, why?
HOULIHAN: I think it’s true with classical music in general, not just organ music. I think fewer and fewer people attend churches so they’re hearing less and less organ music. So it becomes something that seems more foreign to the general public.
BLADE: But is the public generally less interested in classical music than it was, say, 50 years ago?
HOULIHAN: I think so, but I have no idea why. When people ask me the “what to expect” question, it makes me feel as if I have to prove it’s something they should care about. I think maybe we have to prove ourselves a bit more than musicians in other fields, but I also think maybe organists overall could do a better job of bringing people in and intriguing them. It’s such an instrument that’s unlike any other instrument. It’s big and epic and you see people getting hooked and drawn in by it all the time. I try to convey that this is different and exciting and something that’s worth giving it a shot. People do end up loving it many times, this happens over and over. But as for how to fill that gap more generally, I don’t know. It’s never gonna be the kind of music that fills stadiums, but it is exciting and can really communicate to your soul, as cliché as that sounds. It’s music that can reach out and communicate in a very deep way. I try to reach people to their core and move them somehow. That’s what music does for me.
BLADE: Did you decide to be out at the beginning of your career or was it just a natural outgrowth of your personal life?
HOULIHAN: I came out in high school to my friends and family. It’s not really a big part of my musical public personality but it’s who I am. It’s never been a problem.
BLADE: Are you in a relationship now?
BLADE: With movie and TV performers, there’s a huge degree of interest in who’s sleeping with whom, yet in classical music it swings to the other extreme where it’s treated as a non-issue, but sometimes so much so that it seems kind of disingenuous. Why?
HOULIHAN: Right. I think maybe there should be a bit more conversation about that. I think it would make it seem much less like what we’re doing is so elitist or something. I think a bit more talk about that sort of thing or excitement about people’s lives could be a positive development. I think it would make us seem more interesting to the general public like we’re not just these old farts, we are interesting people. And of course the organ world is very gay and there are lots of gay people involved. It’s never been a thing for me. I’m out and there’s never been any reason not to be.