Critic’s Pick: Happy Birthday Hurricane Mama

Terry Riley performs on Hurricane Mama at Walt Disney Concert Hall in May 2008.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Music Critic

If the organ is the king of instruments, the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ is the king of kings. It may not be the largest organ in the world. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, it is far, far from the oldest.

But no other organ looks like French fries, a thrilling trademark of the Frank Gehry hall’s design. No other organ of this scale benefits from bellowing in the surround-sound of Yasuhisa Toyota’s magnificent acoustic. And no other organ is named Hurricane Mama, as Terry Riley dubbed it when he gave his memorably psychedelic first recital on the instrument in 2008.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is celebrating the organ’s anniversary – it was finished a year after the hall opened – in a variety of “Happy Birthday Hurricane Mama” events. Included will be new pieces for organ and orchestra by Kaija Saariaho and Steven Hartke, as well as a blowout recital with eight notable organists.


But first, this Sunday, is another sort of celebratory blowout for organ, this time with brass and percussion. The recital will be the Hurricane Mama debut of Christopher Houlihan, and he will be joined by L.A. Phil brass and the orchestra’s popular principal timpanist Joseph Pereira. The program is a map of organ spectacles, beginning with two of Giovanni Gabrieli’s glorious organ and brass Baroque canzone written for St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

There is also a little Louis Vierne, the gloomy, blind early 20th century French composer who died in 1937 while playing the organ in Notre Dame de Paris. Vierne is an acquired taste, but Houlihan made a name for himself two years ago with his Vierne 2012 tour. For his first L.A. appearance, Houlihan played Vierne’s gothic organ “symphonies” with revelatory zeal at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Among Disney Hall’s many distinctions, it is a place where Hurricane season is eagerly anticipated.