Checking in with organist alum Karen Christianson

NPR’s From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley features many string players, pianists, and wind and brass musicians. But it’s not often that we are able to feature an organ player on our show. One such exception occurred back in 2010 when we welcomed 15-year-old Karen Christianson from Media, Pennsylvania on Show 223 in in Abilene, Texas. She played a spirited contemporary American organ composition which, according to Karen, had “a catchy tune and a dramatic ending.” Fast forward five years and Karen is now a sophomore at Harvard majoring in music AND chemistry!


Karen loved being on the radio show.

“Everyone was so nice, genuine, and open to new ideas.”

She kept in touch with friends she made, and still connects with them today.

“At that time it was so cool to meet other kids who were young musicians like me. Being an organist at 15, it felt like I was the only one around doing that.”

So when Karen came on From the Top she loved meeting other kids who were into their instruments as much as she was.

“It may sound cheesy but those kids were so inspirational and they devoted so much time to their passion. It’s great that From the Top brought us all together to meet and make music.”


Since arriving at Harvard, Karen has been an active member of the Harvard Organ Society, a group geared toward organists and organ enthusiasts including Harvard undergraduates, graduate students and a few MIT students. The group provides an avenue for organ enthusiasts to celebrate their mutual love of the instrument. They conduct a weekly organ class when guest lecturers come in and members study technique, organ literature, and organ improvisation. They really enjoy coming together as a group every week.

“We have 12-15 active student organists in addition to members who come from the greater Boston area,” explained Karen.

The Harvard Organ Society was responsible for providing Karen with a wonderful trip during the summer of 2014 – a summer study tour of European organs in France and the Netherlands. The group experienced some of the most famous organs in Paris and Amsterdam.

“It was so inspirational to play on these beautiful instruments used by the great composers themselves, playing the music they composed on these very organs,” said Karen. “One of my favorite memories was playing the 6th symphony of Charles-Marie Widor on the organ at St. Sulpice where Widor himself was organist in the late 1800’s. I was also able to play on a world famous organ at the St. Bavokerk in Haarlem in the Netherlands.”

Karen then went on to do a mini-concert series on her own.

“My first stop was Rhenen in the Netherlands where I performed a solo organ recital at a church called Cunerakerk. One of the pieces I played was Ride in a High Speed Train by the Dutch composer Ad Wammes who was in attendance at my recital!” Karen exclaimed.

She then went on to Salzburg, Austria.

“I was the only American to perform a solo organ recital at the Salzburg Cathedral during the Salzburg Festival. It was an incredibly inspiring and exhilarating experience to play where Mozart was organist in the 1700s!”

In addition to playing organ music, Karen also played around with chemistry last summer. She worked on an organic synthesis project in a chemistry lab at the University of Pennsylvania, where she performed a series of reactions in the process of creating new molecules that could serve as enzyme inhibitors.

“I have declared my concentration to be both chemistry and music,” she said.

She is not yet going pre-med – she still doesn’t like the sight of blood. She’s keeping both passions going before she has to narrow it down and choose one.

At Harvard there isn’t a major in performance, so studying music is an academic pursuit: theory and musicology – and Karen loves her music classes! This year, as a sophomore, she is excited to be president of the Harvard Organ Society. And she’s still able to continue her performance studies on the side with organ master and Harvard organ teacher Christian Lane, in addition to studying organ performance during trips home with Alan Morrison, her organ teacher at Curtis.


Karen sitting at the organ in Westminster Abbey

Karen sitting at the organ in Westminster Abbey

Karen arranges all of her own concerts and she recently experienced a true musical high – performing at Westminster Abbey in London!

“This was my second recital at the Abbey,” Karen said proudly. “My first was in February of 2013 when, at age 17, I became the youngest organist to perform there!”

Karen’s entire family accompanied her on her 10-day trip in January.

After Karen’s first concert in Westminster Abbey, one of the organists said, ‘We’d love to have you back. Keep in touch.’” So she did. She followed up and they decided to have her back for a concert on January 18, 2015.

And how was it?

“It was awesome!” Karen exclaimed. “One of the coolest things is that the night before you perform, after the Abbey is closed to the public, you are allowed your own practice time. So it was just me in Westminster Abbey all by myself. They shut the building to outsiders and gave me three hours of time with the organ.”

“Looking down and seeing the altar where Will and Kate stood on their wedding date was just amazing. You look around and see the memorials to all these great figures in history like Isaac Newton, Frederic Handel, and even Martin Luther King, and it just feels like it’s a space of greatness. To have the time alone there and to have the opportunity to play that organ was so moving and awe inspiring. I felt like I was participating in history.”

The hall was filled, primarily with tourists who wanted to hear an organ recital in the Abbey. Not only was the evening a huge success, but Karen was invited back for another recital in 2017!

Karen playing the organ in Westminster Abbey

Karen playing the organ in Westminster Abbey

From the Top is so impressed with you, Karen, one of a select group of female organists living your pipe dreams!