It was a fortuitous day for Perth when Joseph Nolan arrived from the UK to take up the role of Organist and Master of Choristers at St George’s Cathedral. He established the Cathedral Consort as one of Australia’s most elite singing groups and musicians from around Australia have been enticed to perform at his critically acclaimed concert series. Now settled in Inglewood as an Australian permanent resident Nolan continues to expand the cathedral’s music program and maintain his overseas touring and recording career.
What music gets your heart racing?
Poly choral works by any great renaissance composer when sung supremely well.
What calms you down?
Jonathan Agnew or Henry Blofield on Test Match Special.
Why the organ?
As a young man, the sheer power was the thrill of course! Like most very young musicians I began life on the piano, but as the organ came so easily to me it was not a hard decision to switch.
What motivated you to move from playing for the Queen on the Buckingham Palace Ballroom organ to sunny Perth at St George’s Cathedral in 2008?
|Nolan at the organ of St James Palace London
The silver tongue of the former Dean of Perth, Dr John Shepherd. He promised me, and delivered, fantastic moral and financial support whilst expecting great things of me in return. I am delighted that our very new Dean, the Very Reverend Richard Pengelley, is already proving to be a great supporter of the music here.
Having said that, it was an enormous wrench and a real risk to move here in terms of my career. I was advised against it at every turn in the UK and during my first year in Perth I certainly found myself questioning the wisdom of such a big move. However, something magical happened on Easter Day in 2009 when I chose a very demanding and controversial mass setting by Naji Hakim. It went spectacularly well and from that moment I realised my dream of building something from the ground up that could become of genuine international standard was possible.
I would add that I was fortunate to move here with a lot of contacts around the USA and Europe and I invest a lot of time maintaining these contacts via email/Skype. Travelling abroad to perform and record is really important to keep your focus and a sense of perspective of what’s going on in the wider world.
August is going to be a Brahms extravaganza in Perth with WASO presenting four concerts of Brahms’ concertos and symphonies and the Cathedral musicians presenting Brahms’ Requiem on August 14th. Have you conducted this before? Where does this work fit in Brahms’ output?
I think it is wonderful that this is all happening in Perth and the timing is indeed most fortuitous. I have not conducted the Requiem before, and I always find conducting something for the first time truly exhilarating. The Requiem is extremely profound and powerful, providing a complete picture of Brahms‘ compositional techniques, as well as his inner beliefs. Brahms’ was quoted saying he would be happy with the Requiem being called a ”human requiem”.
You are also performing Brahms’ rarely heard Alto Rhapsody with Fiona Campbell. How did this idea come about?
The Alto Rhapsody is seemingly very seldom performed, even internationally. It’s an incredible piece of music and we have the best mezzo in Australia, Fiona Campbell, residing here in Perth to perform it.
What is your job description at the Cathedral?
My role is a very varied one and no day is the same. I am required to be able to play the organ to an international standard, train both the Cathedral Choir and Consort to the highest standards, choose a great deal of attractive music for the year and devise a fiscally sound but very innovative season for the Cathedral Consort Series. With meetings, emails (dealing with around seventy people now involved in the department) and fundraising for the Concert Series, preparation time for international concert and recording tours has to be carefully organised.
Where did you learn the skills that have enabled you to straddle the politics of the church and the professional music world?
The only significant road humps I have encountered have been outside the realm of church politics. In those cases, all I can say is if you encounter a toxic work environment, you resign – and quickly. No artist can afford either to be tainted or drained of energy because of less than ideal circumstances.
JS Bach wrote in his bible margin “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.” What do you believe is the role of music when you perform in church services and concerts? Or another way of putting it, what do you hope listeners will experience?
There is no doubt in my mind that when sacred works of genius (i.e. Bach, Palestrina, Mozart etc) are performed to a very high standard even a hardened non believer feels something or is elevated at least spiritually. I have lost count of the times my body has tingled being involved with music in a sacred space, it’s so very different a sensation to the excitement of the Concert Hall or the Opera House.
The Concert Series (and Cathedral Consort), which I founded in 2009, has provided for those people who might not normally want to come into the Cathedral to experience great choral music in a spiritual place. Concert newcomers often email or write to me describing with wonder that they had experienced ‘something transcendent’ or a ‘new spiritual experience’.
Crucial to this experience is both the quality of music and the performance and personally, I believe God deserves the very best. If we are ‘elitist’ then I am proud of it. Elite sport is worn as a badge of honour within Australia and it bewilders me when this charge is occasionally leveled at the music here and other cathedrals with very high quality music programmes.
Lully Lulla (Leighton) St George’s Cathedral Consort
You have a soft spot for the organ works of Widor (you recorded his complete organ works for Signum Records).
Bach and Widor (and maybe Messiaen) are really the only composers that are associated with the organ in terms of world recognition. I first heard Widor’s ubiquitous Toccata from Symphony No 5 when I was 15. I was immensely fortunate, due to the generosity of the Countess of Munster Musical Trust and Hattori Foundation, to study gratis with Marie Claire Alain in Paris for two years, so naturally the French repertoire has always called to me. With Widor, I do feel a particularly close affinity to his music, and I am pleased that the critics obviously agree with my decision to record all his organ music. Widor, unlike any other, had a feel for the organic whole of the organ and how it works, whilst writing music that could appeal to everyone. The organ and its music all too often fails in this regard, having a negative image of being a funeral or church instrument, often played poorly.
In your concerts I often marvel at the precise diction and pitch you draw from your singers. How do you shape a choir to this kind of level?
I will not pretend it has been easy. It takes a long time to build a choirs’ sound and it requires total professional discipline from everyone involved. This starts from the preparation of the music by a singer before the rehearsal and their being ready to start ten minutes before the call time. Without a doubt, instilling this culture here in the first two years proved my biggest challenge and I knew without these elements the right results could not be found.
Happily, the professional and singing culture at the Cathedral is now absolutely fantastic and the music making is relaxed but very focused and disciplined. Of course you have to choose the right team and that’s a huge part of getting ‘the sound’. From there I almost treat the choir as if they are an organ, constantly drawing on blending the sounds and using certain timbres at the right times.
A fundamental aspect and character of my organ playing is based on absolute rhythmic discipline or appropriate amounts of elasticity. These two elements are very important parts of my technique with the choir. Mutual trust plays a part and this might sound obvious, but that the choir and conductor look at each other. So many, on either side, don’t! If you don’t look at each other, it sounds and looks dull! You would be surprised how often this occurs though.
Finally, and most importantly, it all comes down to the ears and instinctive musicianship of the conductor. Degrees and diplomas in choral conducting are perhaps all well and good, but if you don’t have great ears, the ability to communicate and fix the problem quickly and then motivate your singers to the highest standards, no degree on earth or conducting tuition can help you.
The beat and gestures that matter are important too, but the real secret is the mutual preparation, mutual respect and the eyes of all concerned communicating what can’t be said.
A Spotless Rose (Howells) St George’s Cathedral Consort
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
I do enjoy fine dining and big, powerful red wines! Watching Wimbledon obsessively and in particular Federer (imagine he was a musician-he would be the epitome of musical expression and control). Above all else, I value time with my son, Alexander. He has made me realise what life is really all about.
Thank you Joseph Nolan for making time for the Celebrity Soft Spot series. For tickets to Brahms’ Requiem and Alto Rhapsody on August 14th go here. More information on Nolan can be found at http://www.perthcathedral.org/Music/organists and http://www.signumrecords.co.uk/catalogue/joseph-nolan.html.