Features/What to SEE/Music

Perth’s international organist

3 November 2022

Enticed from England 14 years ago by the Dean of St George’s Cathedral, Joseph Nolan’s impact on the local music scene has been significant. He chats with Rosalind Appleby about his latest overseas tour and why Perth audiences need to hear Handel’s Samson.

In 2008 Joseph Nolan arrived in Perth to take on the role of organist and Master of Music at St George’s Cathedral. His illustrious background included a degree from the Royal College of Music, further studies with legendary organists Marie-Claire Alain in Paris and Dame Gillian Weir in London and four years as organist to Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal, St James’s Palace. Fourteen years later, he is now firmly embedded in the WA music scene while maintaining his international career as a renowned organist. Rosalind Appleby catches up with Joseph ahead of two major concerts at the Perth Concert Hall.

Rosalind Appleby: Joseph welcome back from New Zealand, where I understand you’ve just completed a national tour with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. How was it?

Joseph Nolan: In short, it was a perfect experience! The NZSO are a superb orchestra, and it was a joy to work with the Chief Conductor of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley. A very special treat was working and socialising with my fellow featured artist, the astoundingly talented pianist, Gabriela Montero. Her Mozart playing was perfection, and her spontaneous improvising on sung themes from the audience drew ovation after ovation. Dinners were illuminating affairs, about current world events and the elusive mystery of how we make music.

A man sitting in an organ loft with his hands raised almost triumphantly above his head, as though he has just played the final chord on the four manual organ
Joseph Nolan delivers the resounding final moments in a performance with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra . Photo Peter Wallis

RA: We have the former Dean of St George’s Cathedral Dr John Shepherd to thank for enticing you to Perth in 2008. Within a short space of time you formed the St George’s Cathedral Consort and established their reputation as one of the best choral groups in Australia. Where did you learn the skills to be a choral conductor and what is the secret to the perfect choral sound?

JN: On the job experience and watching other conductors (both good and bad!) is crucial. A postgraduate degree in choral conducting is a useful tool up to a point, but at the end of the day, the conductor needs a pair of ears that can discern the tiniest of faults and, most importantly, be able to fix what is wrong. At the same time, your eyes, face, body language and hands have to be able to show what sound you want. In terms of the secret to the perfect choral sound, that’s simple. Hire the best singers you can; otherwise it will prove forever elusive!

RA: While busy building up the Perth music scene through your work at the Cathedral, you’ve also been returning regularly to Europe to make recordings on some of the greatest organs in the world including the majority of France’s most prized organs. What inspired you to begin this process, which now includes 12 albums of classical and romantic organ repertoire?

JN: I have been incredibly fortunate to have Gramophone’s award winning company Signum Records behind me since my days at the Chapel Royal. My first disks for them from Buckingham Palace and St Sulpice, Paris, did well, so they agreed to me recording the complete organ works of Charles-Marie Widor. The critical reaction in the press (including two Gramophone Critics’ Choices) and very high sales and streams (currently around 350,000) have exceeded all expectations. Disks from St Etienne Du Mont, Paris (the church and organ of Duruflé), and St Bavo Haarlem (where Mozart played the organ when he was 10 years old) have also won Limelight’s Recording of the Month (the first and only disk of organ music to win this award) and a Recording of the Year from MusicWeb International. I am incredibly grateful to the Managing Director of Signum Records, Mr Steve Long, for his ongoing support of my career.

Joseph Nolan conducts the Cathedral Consort singing ‘In Paradisum’ by Perry Joyce. Photo supplied

RA: What do you intend to record next?

JN: Signum commissioned me to record the complete organ works of Charles-Valentin Alkan in June 2020. This enormous project (some of the music goes way beyond technically difficult) has been postponed three times due to COVID and, most recently, the delayed restoration of the organ at La Madeleine, Paris. It is likely that the recording will take place in either June or November 2023, depending on the pace of the restoration. I know this organ and space very well from the Widor recordings: it is one of the few Cavaille Coll organs to have a sequencer to programme stop combinations (needed when time is short), and Alkan attended the funeral of Chopin at this very church.

RA: This month we will witness your organ wizardry on display as you bring to life the 3000 pipes of the Perth Concert Hall organ. The repertoire is one of the most famous works in the organ repertory, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony and Barber’s Toccata Festiva. What can we expect from this performance with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra?

JN: West Australian Symphony Orchestra is on a clear ascendency under their charismatic chief conductor Asher Fisch. Asher is conducting “Organ Grandeur”, and given that the repertoire is so explosive and melodic, I have a feeling that these could be two “wow” concerts in their season. Whilst I know everyone will love the Saint-Saëns, the Barber (15 minutes of perfect music) could be the dark horse in terms of a concert favourite.

RA: In your concert programming for the St George’s Cathedral Concert Series you’ve made a habit of premiering the first professional performances in Perth of key works like Handel’s Solomon and Bach’s Easter Oratorio. This year you are bringing us Handel’s less well-known oratorio Samson. Tell us why you chose this work?

JN: As much as I love conducting Messiah, Perth doesn’t need another performance of this well-known oratorio for a while. Handel actually wrote 29 oratorios, and Samson has never (as far as we can ascertain) been performed on a fully professional basis in WA. Handel wrote Samson immediately after completing Messiah, and it was wildly popular in his time. It is littered with little known gems, and the orchestral resources used are uniquely large – even including horns! The Cathedral Consort sing Handel exceptionally well, and audiences love his music, so it makes sense to present as many of his works here for the first time as possible. It is my job to provide a wide repertoire, and just rotating Messiah annually would be doing WA a great disservice. My intention is for all 29 oratorios to be performed in WA. Barring Messiah, we do tend to perform cut versions however. It is simply impossible to make a concert such as Samson financially viable in its entirety, given the cost of rehearsals as well as the performance. Handel himself cut versions of his music all the time depending on the musicians and singers he had available to him in different cities.

Joseph Nolan conducts WASO and the Cathedral Consort in ‘Messiah’ in 2021. Photo Rebecca Mansell

RA: Whether on organ or as a conductor, your interpretations of the great choral and organ repertoire seem to earn rave reviews. How do you go about revealing the beating heart of each piece of music?

JN: Prepare, prepare, prepare. If you are prepared, you are at least starting on a winning wicket with your musicians, even if they don’t agree with your musical decisions. When I was young and arrogant, I thought I didn’t need to prepare and could just wing it. This was a huge mistake, which I quickly learnt to correct. Reading books, understanding style and then having the courage to make your own musical decisions are crucial. At the heart of my interpretations is a desire to bring the best out of the musicians and to inspire and lift the audience to another world, away from the banality of mortal life. Finally, learning to let go of your ego is crucial. Yes, you need to be secure in your ability, but the music isn’t about you; you are merely a privileged conduit. The modern rage of glitzy clothes, preposterous self-acclaiming adjectives and movements choreographed for the audience are nothing to do with music. These props are all a diversion. All that matters is the music.

RA: It has been 14 years now, I confess I didn’t think we’d hold onto you this long, Joseph. What has induced you to stay in Perth?

Well, my son, Alexander (coming up to 16), is a hugely important part of my life – I wasn’t going to leave him behind under any circumstances. My partner here in WA is another very important part of my life. Beyond personal reasons however, the dream I had, supported by the genius Dean who recruited me, Dr John Shepherd (now Dean Emeritus), is now a reality. Few people believed at the start of my tenure that the Cathedral Consort and the standards we now enjoy could be attained. The morale of the Consort is the highest that it has ever been, and so many people have given me enormous support. There are too many people to mention here, but the current Dean, The Very Reverend Chris Chataway, and the Cathedral Chapter are fantastic and steadfast supporters of the Cathedral music. Also, the support of our underwriting sponsors, Julian and Alexandra Burt, echoes the Haydn/Esterhazy relationship – very unique in modern times. The Burts are also good friends of mine. To enjoy such support surely deserves a special sense of return. Once I feel standards are starting to drop within the Consort, or my concert and recording career becomes an obstacle to sustaining the correct standards here – only then will I consider leaving St George’s Cathedral.

Joseph Nolan will perform in “Organ Grandeur” on 25/26 November and Samson on 8 December 2022.

Pictured top: Joseph Nolan is organist and Master of Music at St George’s Cathedral. Photo supplied

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

Past Articles

  • Celebrating five years of independent journalism

    Seesaw Magazine has reached a new milestone in our quest to ignite conversation about the arts in WA. Find out how you can support us and keep courageous, professional and independent journalism alive.

  • What to SEE: November gig guide

    Feel like a good laugh, a punk-rock school bus musical, or hunting for giants? All this plus more in this month’s guide to the very best of the West Australian arts scene.

Read Next

  • Reading time • 10 minutesFringe World Festival
  • Carina Roberts and Gakuro Matsui in The Nutcracker How to watch ballet

    How to watch ballet

    16 November 2023

    If you’ve booked tickets to Christmas favourite The Nutcracker and you’re not sure what to expect, look no further! Rita Clarke has you covered.

    Reading time • 10 minutesDance
  • Reading time • 7 minutesMulti-arts

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio


Cleaver Street Studio