Music and Beyond: The musical journey of Paul Halley

Paul Halley will be performing on July 18 in Dominion-Chalmers..

Paul Halley lives in Nova Scotia’s Mahone Bay these days with a sailboat at the ready.

It’s a short commute to his jobs in Halifax, one leading The University of Kings College Chapel Choir and the other as the music director at The Cathedral Church of All Saints.

It’s a long journey for a kid born in Romford, in East London, England, to working class parents. But the music really starts in Ottawa.

Halley is a Grammy winning composer, conductor and organist who got his start at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in the 1960s under the baton of first Gerald Wheeler and then Brian Law.

He’s making a rare visit back to the capital this week to perform in the Music and Beyond gala concert tribute to Law and then to lead his own concert on Thursday evening in which he’ll play some Bach, some Franck and a piece of his own called Toccata Andromeda.

It will be the first time he’s played the organ in Dominion-Chalmers.

“The last time I was in that building was when I was 12 was to hear E. Power Biggs  play.”

Halley had become interested in the organ at about age nine.

“My parents emigrated to Ottawa from England when I was five. If you are a Romford man you are up to no good. You are basically poorly dressed and drunk most of the time.” So, he said, he’s lucky he missed all that.

“Romford is basically East London. When my parents were there it was the lower end of the working class. That was back in the day in England when they had the working class intelligentsia. They listened to the Goons, for example, on the radio. If I tried to make any noise during one of those shows, there was hell to pay.”

Halley’s father was a classically trained pianist and he played in a jazz band to make some money after the family landed in Ottawa in 1957. Donald Halley would go on to be a teacher and eventually a principal.

Halley’s parents were staunch Baptists. His father played the organ at the Bromley Road Baptist Church.

The Halleys noticed Paul had an inclination to music and got him a teacher named Russell Green who eventually said the young boy would benefit with a higher level of instruction.

“My father had become quite a fan of Gerald Wheeler who was at St. Matthew’s. Wheeler used to do local CBC-TV once a week in a show called The King of Instruments.

“Dad was an avid follower of the program so they got in touch with Gerald. He said he would audition me but Wheeler said that ‘If I am teaching a young boy whose voice hasn’t changed it is pretty much required that he join the men and boys choir of St. Matthew’s Church’.”

That through a spanner into the works because the thought of going to an Anglican church caused consternation for Halley’s Baptist parents. 

Eventually, though, the music won out and his parents agreed to allow Halley became a member of the choir and a student of Wheeler. 

“That was the beginning of all of it.”

Then Brian Law took over. He made Halley an assistant organist after his voice changed. 

“The training I received from Brian over the next four years was extraordinary. I still think about it almost every day if I am doing something with the choir, or accompanying something or playing an organ piece.

“Thank God for Brian because he was tough and if he complimented you it really meant something.”

Halley impressed enough that at 16 he was made an associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. He got an M.A. and was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists.

Despite all that, Halley says he was not committed to a career in music.

“In fact, I tried to avoid it. When I was in my 20s, there was a very strong pull towards serving the world in some kind of way.” So he got into economic development work and spent two years in Jamaica working for CUSO.

He was playing music all the time but viewed it as a hobby.

There was a constant tussle with music. He had the talent, but “I wanted to save the world and didn’t see how music was going to do that.”

His dream of a career in economic development took him to study at the University of Victoria. To pay some bills he worked as the assistant organist in the cathedral. 

It happened to be the year the cathedral hosted a North American conference of the deans of cathedrals and Jim Morton, then the Dean of St. John the Divine in New York, went to that gathering.

“It was the only one he went to in his lifetime and he was looking for an organist and choir master because the cathedral had just fired the previous one.

“He heard me play and he wouldn’t leave me alone. I had a jazz group and he came to the clubs and stayed until 2 a.m.

“He kept saying come to New York and check it out.” Halley said he was planning to take post-graduate studies at the University of Toronto with Robert Heilbroner

Finally his first wife asked, “Are you really going pass on this?”

It was the right decision.

“The dean brought in sculptors, poets, even the high wire trapeze artist Philippe Petit, the place was just jumping.”

The dean was positioning the cathedral as a centre of the cultural and spiritual life of New York City.

‘It was like nothing I had encountered before,” Halley said. 

Even so, Halley was still thinking about another path. he was eyeing a pre-med course at Columbia University but then he met Paul Winter.

“It was serendipitous.” Just before they met, Halley had checked a record bin and had seen “this record cover with a lot of guys dressed up looking like elves in a beautiful forest holding lutes and saxophone and a bass clarinet.

He bought the album by the Paul Winter Consort and was captivated.

So he was familiar with Winter’s work when the dean called about midnight a few weeks later and said that Winter was in the cathedral and invited Halley to “come on over and play the organ.”

He did so and the two men played together for two hours before they were even formally introduced.

He was invited to work with Winter and “then I realized couldn’t do cathedral, work with the Paul Winter Consort and do pre-med at Columbia so gave up pre-med.”

The collaboration with Winter was as a principal writer and keyboardist on multiple Grammy Award-winning albums in the 1980s and 1990s. 

That sorted him out and he finally gave in to music.

In 1989, after 12 years at the cathedral, Halley moved to Connecticut and founded a children’s choir called  Chorus Angelicus and an adult ensemble called Gaudeamus.  In 1999, Halley became Director of Music at Trinity Episcopal Church, in Torrington where he inaugurated a choral and organ scholars program in conjunction with Yale University.

In 2007, Halley relocated to Halifax.

His blended family had been coming to Nova Scotia for years. His second wife, the artist Meg Race, had three children and Halley also had three of his own. 

“One morning Meg’s oldest boy Nathaniel asked to go into Halifax to see the cathedral which was designed by Ralph Adams Cram.” Nathaniel had been studying Cram’s work at Harvard.

Halley went to see the building and he was approached by yet another dean who was also looking for an organist.

“That got the wheels turning. Word got out in Halifax that I was interested in moving there.” And eventually a package was put together for Halley that made the move feasible.

Music and Beyond presents Paul Halley in concert
Where: Dominion-Chalmers
When: July 18 at 2 p.m.
Tickets and information: musicandbeyond.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.