Rachel Mahon is an organist and conductor who is playing at Bradford Cathedral on Wednesday 18th September as part of the autumn season of the Wednesday@One organ recitals. We spoke to her ahead of her recital to find out more about her career, her musical background and what to expect when she plays in Bradford.
Could you tell us about your music background?
I grew up in Toronto and I was a chorister in a church in the city, and that meant I sang every Sunday. It was a great place to start my musical education; it gave me the basis of what I do now. I learnt the piano with my mother and then, when I was a teenager, I decided to start taking up organ lessons, and being exposed to that as a child has really helped.
I did music at university, and afterwards moved to the UK to do an organ scholarship, and I’ve been here about six years.
Have you found your experience of music in the UK different to that in Canada?
Church music is different because, if you’re in a cathedral over here, you’re doing it every day. Most cathedrals have services every weekday and multiple services on the weekend, whereas in Canada it’s very rare, if ever, that happens. There, most churches and cathedrals only have Sunday services. In a way it’s much more intense over here; things are much busier and cathedrals have more members of staff. Because of that you can do more difficult music more of the time, so you get very big choirs over here. You do get very good choirs in Canada, as well, but there are just so many in the UK.
Music can also be very similar, as being a cathedral organist, you play Evensong most of the time, and the nice thing is that Evensong in Canada is exactly the same as over here, so you can feel very much at home wherever you are!
You are the Assistant Director of Music at Coventry Cathedral; is that an interesting position?
It’s been really great and I’m just starting my second year. Coventry, having said all that, is one of the cathedrals that doesn’t do quite as many services. We do two weekday services and two on a Sunday, which is great as it gives me time to do other things like recitals. It offers more variety, which I like.
You have a debut album out next year; what was that like to record?
It was very fun to do and it was a lot quicker to put together than I thought it would take. The organ is such a wonderful instrument. I’ve recorded all Canadian music, and there’s actually a connection between Coventry and Canada and that’s the ceiling, which is made of Canadian cedar, donated by the country. Also Canadian organists fundraised after the Second World War to donate money to British organs that were destroyed. The entirety of the fund went to repair the organ, which covered about three-fifths of the cost. That’s a lovely little connection, which is why I chose to play Canadian music. There’s also a maple leaf in the back of the cathedral, in the floor, which is there to acknowledge this donation from years ago!
As well as your solo work you also tour as part of the duo ‘Organised Crime’, which promises music and crazy antics! What do you get up to together?
We’re very silly! I would say we channel a bit of The Carol Burnett Show and Victor Borge, that kind of thing. It’s like a variety and comedy show, and we play the organ. It mixes everything up: there’s costume changes; the whole script is memorised; and we like to have as much fun as possible with the music!
We have a video coming out soon of us playing the finale of the 1812 Overture in a very unique way, but I won’t give it away as that will spoil it!
Do you enjoy the balance of the more formal organ recitals with something a bit more fun?
Yes, absolutely. I love the contrast. It’s a lot of work, and more work playing with another person, believe it or not, but we have lots of fun doing it. I enjoy it, as when you’re on your own as a solo artist it’s a very solitary experience and it’s good to have a duet partner and someone to talk to whilst you work!
You were also the first female organist in the 1400-year history of St. Paul’s Cathedral…
That was exciting and surreal. It was an amazing place to work and that doesn’t really wear off. I was there for two years and it was always awe-inspiring going into the cathedral. It was unusual as, when I got the job, that wasn’t even mentioned but when they released it into the press they added that fact in, so they then had lots of people asking for interviews, which was crazy. It was a great experience.
What can people expect from your upcoming organ recital?
The Gerald Bales and Rachel Laurin are both Canadian pieces and also on my upcoming album, and I start and end with them. Most people in the UK haven’t heard of them so it’ll be new, but most people do like them. Sometimes some modern music is difficult to latch onto, but the Laurin piece in particular is beautiful with soaring lines, and the toccata is just very, very exciting and powerful!