The lion was let out…a music review by FraserBeath McEwing

February 19, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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I enthusiastically joined an almost full house at the Sydney Opera House to hear the embedded grand organ played – as I have occasionally done in the past – but nothing prepared me for uplift and grandeur produced by English-born, Australian-educated organist, Joseph Nolan…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

The combination of organist, organ and program worked magic which, for me, surpassed most concerts I’d heard at the Opera House.

Joseph Nolan

First, here’s a good trivia question: where would you find the biggest mechanical pipe organ in the world? The answer is in the Sydney Opera House concert hall. Completed in 1979, the organ has 10,154 pipes which give a distinctive sound, especially suited to French music. Its builder, Ronald Sharp, said that he had set out to build a musical instrument rather than a machine. But a mighty machine it is anyway. Many doubted it could be built to specification when it was in the planning stage. For the record, the world’s largest pipe organ (and largest musical instrument ever built) is in Atlantic City, USA. The Midmer-Losh organ has over 33,000 pipes and holds a number Guinness World Records.

The Sydney Opera House organ is the showpiece of the concert hall, with towering pipes above the stage and the organist centrally seated high among them. Nolan immediately endeared himself to the audience with an open arm welcome which recalled Jesus above Rio. Then he swung his legs over the seat, set the stops, and got down to work.

The first piece, Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’S259 by Franz Liszt came from a period when Liszt had forsaken the solo concert stage (at only 35) to concentrate on conducting and composing. It is one of only three works by Liszt for solo organ but stands as one of the masterworks for the instrument. From the outset is it clear that here is a piano composer turning his hand to organ. Consequently, the finger work is punishing whereas the foot pedals are not so demanding – because Liszt, probably the greatest pianist yet born, was not so good on the heel and toe, sometimes employing a nifty footman to play the third line for him.

Because Liszt was more influenced by piano and orchestral music than organ music, he brought a freshness to his organ works, particularly in harmonies, where he’d use chords not often found in organ compositions. The result, in the case of the Fantasy and Fugue is arresting intensity and inventiveness.

While technique and interpretation are not as exposed in organ performance as they are in most other instruments, Nolan’s playing was both virtuosic and scholarly. The final blasting chord, which seemed to propel the Opera House roof into orbit, could have been a spectacular seal on the program.

But Widor’s Organ Symphony No.5 in F minor, Op 42 No.1 was to come. I wondered whether these two pieces had been placed in the correct order, so conclusive had the Liszt been, but by the end of the Widor, I had seen the wisdom.

Charles-Marie Widor was a French composer who lived from 1844 until 1937. He studied under Liszt in Paris, but was always an organ specialist, both in composition and performance.

Fraser Beath McEwing

In a large body of organ composition, his Organ Symphony No. 5 is the most widely played. The word ‘symphony’ is not misplaced here because during Widor’s lifetime the pipe organ expanded its capabilities so that it became, in many ways, a single instrument symphony orchestra.

The symphony is in five movements, each self-contained in theme and style. Although not as spontaneously combustible as the Liszt, there is inventiveness and excitement in all the movements – until we come to the fifth and final movement when Widor lets the lion out of the cage. This movement has now become a stand-alone toccata which makes devilish demands on the hands and feet to produce an astounding effect. Nolan threw himself into it, his body moving like that of a gymnast while sound cascaded in huge bursts above the heads of the audience. Again, he held the final chord, hunched over the keys until, when there seemed no more air to breathe, he released, flinging his arms back to semaphore the end.

A clapping and cheering audience had Nolan appearing and disappearing from his nest in the sky until it obliged him to play an encore. This, I thought, is going to be interesting. How is he going to equal or top the toccata? Cleverly, he didn’t bother – he played in again! I’ve never heard an encore repeat something from the program, but in this case, it made sense. We didn’t know that until we’d heard it again, and then everybody left with it playing in their heads.

Sydney Opera House organ concert 17 February 2017

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


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