Ahead of its WA premiere, the organist reckons Handel’s oratorio offers more than just The Queen of Sheba’s ubiquitous arrival.

Handel’s Solomon is a wonderful score, yet with the exception of the ubiquitous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba has always fared badly on CD and in live performance compared to, say, Saul or Samson. Why do you think that might be?

I think perhaps because there are no ‘easy listening’ tunes in the arias and the choruses are generally much longer than those of, say, Messiah. It has to be said that the word painting and general ingenuity of the choruses are not at the level of Messiah or Samson, and accounts for why Solomon appears to be around fourth in terms of the most performances Handel conducted of his own oratorios.

Solomon is an oratorio that you need to experience as a whole performance for it to make sense. You can’t get away with the usual excerpts disc movements here! While performances are often edited, judicious cuts ensure that the libretto and music build the story in a leaner and perhaps more powerful way.

Joseph NolanJoseph Nolan, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Perth’s St George’s Cathedral.

This will be the Perth premiere. Why has WA had to wait 268 years?

Yes, this will be the first fully professional performance in Perth. A Western Australian choral society performed it around 55 years ago (incomplete), but that’s the only other performance we’re aware of.

As to why, I am not sure. I took up the position here at St George’s Cathedral due to the enormous potential I saw to develop a professional cathedral choir and the opportunities to perform repertoire that was rarely or never performed here. There are always three or four performances of Messiah scheduled close together, and I wanted to do something different in early November before the busy Christmas season.

What drew you personally to Solomon?

It is so musically upbeat with some absolutely sublime arias for the First Woman and The Queen of Sheba

What are the particular challenges for a conductor with the work?

Really nothing more than the usual issue for any conductor when handling a long score: namely, when the first chord sounds you must know exactly how to pace the music to keep the audience’s interest two hours later.

What are your personal highlights in the piece?

Can I See My Infant Gored for the First Woman and Will the Sun Forget to Streak for The Queen of Sheba. These are fabulous arias but remain very much under the radar, even with more seasoned music lovers.

Do you think Australia still misses out on important classical works and visiting musicians, and what might be done about that?

I have been in Australia now for nearly ten years, and certainly in the last five or six there has been a massive influx of visiting musicians, so we’re not missing out as much as we were – barring Martha Argerich of course; I really hope she manages to visit here eventually.

Nevertheless, it is absolutely crucial for international benchmarks to be set here and for these works and musicians to be heard. More of a challenge for Australian groups (except for the Australian Chamber Orchestra) is how to break into Europe, but that’s a whole other debate…

Is our classical music industry too often seen as a charitable cause requiring philanthropic support to keep it alive? And how might matters be improved?

I am a bit of a renegade here. In Germany the state supports its arts and even church system through taxes levied on the people. I would not want to see that here. In addition, funding from certain organisations brings with it a huge amount of paperwork and numerous conditions.

For art to be successful and independent, we should look to the US, where named philanthropy is worn as a badge of honour. There are two obvious challenges to this system in that during difficult economic times, donors fall away. This is happening right now, and some US orchestras are in difficult financial straits as a result. But when philanthropic support for music thrives, the artistic freedom is immense.

This all relates back to education and how culture is viewed by the general public. In Australia, in my experience, the balance is tipped heavily towards sport and away from music. For example, singing in schools, early and consistently, is not the norm. Unless we educate and view music as a core subject that complements maths, English and science, then future audiences and donors will not be ready to take on the mantle for the next generation.

For audiences unfamiliar with Solomon, what do you hope their first-time experience would be?

That they leave smiling, fulfilled and happy! This means that they will come and hear Samson in 2019 as a result!


Joseph Nolan will conduct Handel’s Solomon at Perth Concert Hall November 4.

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