When is an organ recital more than that? When the entire LA Phil brass section joins the fray, as it will this coming Sunday, October 12th, at 7pm, for a tenth birthday party of sorts.
You see, Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in fall of 2003, but there was one important component that was not quite ready: its iconic pipe organ. The instrument — with a distinctive facade designed by architect Frank Gehry featuring a skewed and jumbled collection of curved wooden pipes, leading some people to refer to it as an over-sized sleeve of french fries — looked finished, but it still needed to be tuned and voiced by organ sound designer Manuel Rosales. That took about a year, and its inaugural performance wasn’t until Disney Hall’s second season. Eventually, organist and composer Terry Riley gave the organ a new nickname: “Hurricane Mama.”
This 2014-2015 season, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will take many opportunities to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the organ’s debut with a combination of orchestral concerts and organ recitals. Sunday’s program ranges from the early Baroque works of Gabrieli to Bruce Edward Miller’s recent composition, Pluto: The Last Planet. In between are pieces by Bach, Sowerby, Vierne, Dukas, and Barber. The featured soloist is organist Christopher Houlihan, a budding superstar with his own veritable set of followers affectionately known as “Houlifans.” He made his Los Angeles debut playing Vierne’s organ symphonies at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Mr. Houlihan hasn’t played at Disney Hall before, but he is familiar with its biggest instrument. “I’ve heard the Disney Hall organ, so I know that I’m going to enjoy playing it,” he told me. “I know that in particular it has a wide variety of colors: it has very soft sounds and beautiful solo stops, and also the power to fill the whole hall. I really like an organ with diversity like that.”
But it doesn’t stop there. Mr. Houlihan is being joined on stage by the entire LA Phil brass section plus Principal Timpani Joseph Pereira — because sometimes, the 6,134 pipes of the Disney Hall organ aren’t quite enough. Think of it not as an organ recital, but rather a chamber music concert featuring an atypical collection of wind instruments.
“From the time I knew I was coming to L.A.,” says Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, “I really wanted to create an outlet for the orchestral brass to play chamber music together. We started with the organ series. I’m super excited about it.”
Though the two musicians haven’t worked with each other before, Mr. Hooten is looking forward to making music with Mr. Houlihan — “He’s a very energetic, great player,” he says — and hearing what the LA Phil brass and the organist will do together. “One of the Gabrieli pieces has three brass choirs, and one of them will played by the organ itself – two brass choirs plus the organ. I think it’ll be very cool to have a brass group on stage right, another one on stage left, so you’ll have this stereo effect and the organ sounding this center voice.”
Mr. Houlihan is excited about it too. “It’s a combination that really works. It’s an amazing, great sound. You have the brass that has the percussive immediacy and fire to it and the organ that can fill in with warmth and atmosphere.”
Both musicians cite the importance of maximizing the connection with the audience. Mr. Hooten repeatedly mentions how critical it is to communicate musically with the listeners, adding, “it’ll be nice to have our players come down closer and be more interactive with the audience.”
For similar reasons, Mr. Houlihan is making a point of using the organ console that can be moved on the Disney Hall stage rather than playing from the fixed console in the organ loft amongst the wooden pipes. As Mr. Houlihan explains, “That’ll be easier for coordinating with and seeing the brass players. In this case, we really need to be able to visually communicate with each other.”
“I like that they can see with what is going on; I can’t imagine going to a piano recital and not seeing the pianist,” the organist points out. “Even in cases where I play in a choir loft or gallery behind the audience, I all but insist that they take advantage of setting up a camera and screen so that people can see what’s going on. It’s really an important part of experiencing music, seeing the action taking place. The organ in particular – it’s very exciting watching an organist manipulate this complex machine with all these buttons and keyboards. A lot of people don’t realize how complex the music is that you’re playing with your feet. It’s thrilling to watch.”
You would think that combining the loudest instruments in the orchestra with the massive sound an organ can make would be too much of a good thing. Not so, say both musicians. This concert is about much more than just being as loud as possible.
“I don’t think there’ll be just one mass of sound, I think you’ll have a nice interplay between the instruments,” states Mr. Hooten. “There have been interpretations all over the map of the two pieces we’re starting with by Gabrieli. There are some very light interpretations that more reflect what the instruments were capable of, and then there also have been interpretations that are more knock-down drag-out brass blow your face off – those are exciting too. But I think personally that we’re going to maximize the opportunity to play chamber music.”
“The program itself has such huge range from Gabrieli to Miller, and the way the composers use the organ is very different,” Mr. Houlihan adds. “In the Gabrieli, the organ is used almost like continuo to support the sound. In something like the Vierne march, it’s more like organ vs. brass in a way. The brass tends to have the theme and the organ has its own theme and they’re kind of competing. In the Miller, we’re like a team creating this otherworldly atmosphere that the title implies. It’s a killer combination.”
That’s not to say that Mr. Houlihan and company won’t be pulling out all the stops, both literally and figuratively. “You can’t go full blast all the time,” mentions later. “In concert, I try to save the tutti for a few key moments so that it really has an impact!”
- Walt Disney Concert Hall organ: Federico Zignani
- Christopher Houlihan: Ali Winberry
- Thomas Hooten: Mathew Imaging