Nolan shows his mettle on the pedal

17 June 2023

Choral leader and conductor Joseph Nolan tackles some of the most challenging and virtuosic organ music with flair, giving the audience a rare view into the process, writes Emma Jayakumar.

Sir Francis Burt Memorial Concert, Joseph Nolan 
St George’s Cathedral, 15 June 2023 

As I enter the warm and welcoming interior of St George’s Cathedral from a cold and drizzly evening outside, a quick glance at the program shows a truly interesting selection of pieces. Brimming with opportunities for a virtuoso performer like Joseph Nolan to shine, it also perhaps aims to offer a varied sound world for the listener. 

As a composer, I have a special regard for the organ and its connection to so many extraordinary compositional minds – Bach, Messiaen, Saint-Saëns, Faure, Florence Price to name a few. St George’s Cathedral’s West Organ is well worthy of the music written for it, and as the soldout concert gets underway the air is brimming with expectation. 

Joseph Nolan plays the West Organ. Photo: Russell Barton

There are multiple large screens in the cathedral space giving a bird’s-eye view of the organist’s keyboard, along with a side-on view of the organist’s pedals. This is a wonderfully interesting perspective in the more traditional sacred setting, where the audience rarely sees much of an organist in the rafters above.  

The Messerer-arranged Chaconne in D Minor from Bach’s original second partita for solo violin is an expressive start to the program. There is drama at times as the arrangement cycles through major and minor iterations, from prayerful and introspective to full voiced and dynamically passionate. It’s fascinating to watch Nolan’s pedal movement and appreciate the lightning-fast stop movements required throughout the piece.  

The vastly contrasting Fantasy and Fugue by Franz Liszt makes a dark and foreboding entrance as it works itself into a frenzy (quite literally at times with challenging pedal movement) before a bassoon-like bass melody line leads into the more reserved and pensive adagio. There is a real sense of pianism in this piece — lots of octave movement and figures highly reminiscent of  Liszt’s piano work.  

The bombastic and march-like fugue is very rousing and slightly bonkers harmonically, it’s thrilling to hear how Liszt pushed boundaries, experimenting with different sonorities, exploring the combinations of the organ sound world. Nolan delivers all these features with aplomb. 

After interval, Widor’s Organ Symphony begins majestically and Nolan comes into his own, with melismatic phrases flying back and forth and complex transitions handled with musicality and skill. This piece shows a composer very at home with his instrument, as the performer clearly is, supremely showcasing so many different colours of the organ.  

The Adagio is played soothingly before the Intermezzo displays some familiar complex arpeggiated Widor writing, with well-executed dynamic call and response sections providing extra interest. The Cantabile is lilting and expressively rendered before the thundering conclusion of the Vivace. The audience energy in the room palpably picks up during Nolan’s fiery and virtuosic finale, which features the fabulous trumpet stops.  

It’s a triumph thoroughly deserving of a standing ovation. 

Pictured top: Joseph Nolan acknowledges the audience in St George’s Cathedral after his performance. Photo: Russell Barton

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Author —
Emma Jayakumar

Emma Jayakumar is an Australian composer and librettist whose recent major works include commissions for West Australian Opera, the ABC, Darwin Symphony Orchestra, Awesome Arts, West Australian Ballet and Music Book. Emma is an advocate for accessible works for young audiences, as well as new music celebrating diverse Australian voices.

Past Articles

  • Magical musicians weave wondrous textures

    Beautiful threads of music making are drawn together to create a simply wonderful concert experience, writes Emma Jayakumar. 

  • Youth rise to the occasion

    The Western Australian Youth Orchestra punch well above their collective artistic weight in this ambitious and emotive program, writes Emma Jayakumar

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