It takes some special friends to get a career up and running.
Christopher Houlihan, a rising star in the world of organ performance, knows. He's the first performer in this year's Bach Festival, the 78th series of concerts, talks and other events presented by the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park.
Houlihan was attending Trinity College in Connecticut in 2006 when three of his classmates attended one of his performances. They so enjoyed the recital, they began calling themselves "Houli-fans." And it didn't stop there.
They started a club aimed at convincing fellow students at to attend Houlihan's recitals — and it worked. By his senior year, when he performed with the Hartford Symphony, busloads of students came to cheer from the balcony.
"They were just guys who liked music," says Houlihan, who still keeps in touch with his college buddies. "For some reason they got really into it. It was spontaneous and fun — and little bit silly."
The silly part is the nickname "Houli," which he still hears.
But the musicianship is serious business.
"Everything he plays is sharply and smartly delineated," wrote Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed in a review last summer. "More than four hours' worth of punishingly gnomic organ writing proved in Houlihan's hands ever graceful of shape and full of life."
The Houli-fans have lived on, through Facebook -- facebook.com/houlifans -- and now number in the hundreds.
What, you don't think organists are cool enough to use Facebook? Picturing an absent-minded professor or "Phantom of the Opera" type?
"It's an unfortunate misrepresentation of the organ," says Houlihan, 25. "Admittedly, it's an ancient instrument — but the people who play it are alive and well."
Organists need to be in shape: Fingers fly over multiple keyboards; arms reach out to the "stops," the knobs that control the instrument's varied sounds; and legs dart back and forth across the varied pedals.
"You get comments like 'It looks like you're dancing up there,'" Houlihan says. "'It looks like the cockpit of an airplane.'"
It's part of his mission to smash people's preconceived ideas of organ music.
"People think of it as kind of boring and droning because that's what they hear in church," he says. "But it's so colorful. I think people are really stunned they can enjoy organ music. I hear it all the time after a show: 'This is so much more exciting than I thought it would be.'"
He gets excited describing one of the works on his Bach Festival program, Franz Liszt's "Fantasy and Fugue on 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.'"
"It's an epic, epic piece for organ," Houlihan enthuses, his voice rising. "It's good vs. evil, it's dramatic, operatic in scale."
Houlihan started piano lessons when he was 7. Like many Americans, he first saw an organ played at church.
"I was drawn to it," he says. "I can't explain it any better than that. I was awestruck by the pedals and the pipes and the volume. I knew it was way cooler than the piano."
In his small Connecticut town, he couldn't find an organ instructor. Being resourceful, he turned to the Internet for help — but there was only so much to be learned from the World Wide Web.
Then, when he was 12, fate intervened. An aunt heard about an organ recital in Hartford and told his mom. His mother took him, and they met the performer, John Rose, organist for Trinity College.
After hearing about Houlihan's problem in finding an instructor, Rose asked the boy to play something for him: an impromptu audition. Rose was impressed with what he saw and took on Houlihan as his own student.
The rest, as they say, is history — a history that already includes a couple of CDs, multiple awards, a graduate degree from the Juilliard School and a stint as assistant musician at the American Cathedral in Paris, where he performed for President George W. Bush.
"Just think," he says, "if I hadn't gone to that one recital, I'm not sure what would have happened."
Christopher Houlihan at the Bach Festival
• Where: Knowles Memorial Chapel, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park
• When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15
• Tickets: $25
• Call: 407- 646-2182
• Online: bachfestivalflorida.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun