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Profile: Andrew Cleary, organist, pianist, teacher and conductor

Who and what have been the main influencers on your decision to pursue a career in music?

Singing was always important in my family – my grandmother was a life-long member of the Hull Choral Union, I attended their concerts regularly from a young age, and my father still sings with the York Music Society – so it was not unusual that I become a chorister at the age of 7 at York Minster. When my family moved to St Albans at the age of 11, I sang in the Abbey choir there, and it was there that I had organ lessons with Stephen Darlington.

I gained an early interest in musical theatre in the Sixth Form at school, working with the National Youth Music Theatre, and going to the Edinburgh Festival to perform in the Band for productions of “Oliver” and “Annie”.

I read music, specialising in performance and conducting, at the University of East Anglia, where I was also organ scholar at Norwich Cathedral. I developed a love of the Baroque repertoire under Robert Wooley, and worked with the Norwich Philharmonic Choir and the Aldeburgh Festival Chorus.

Later I moved to study as a postgrad at the Royal College of Music, specialising in early music and performance. Nick Danby challenged me to play the organ with a glass of beer on my wrist!

I became Assistant Organist at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Trafalgar Square, making regular broadcasts for BBC Radio and television and directing the St Martin’s Scholars and the vocal Ensemble Le Nuove Musiche. One memorable experience was playing the organ in the memorial service for Frankie Howard, where Griff Rhys Jones and Rowan Atkinson gave some of the tributes.

After various posts teaching music at schools, I settled in Portsmouth as Director of Music at The Portsmouth Grammar School (PGS), where I worked closely with the Chamber Choir and the London Mozart Players, commissioning works from Sally Beamish, Cecilia MacDowell and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. I also set up and then directed the Portsmouth Cathedral Girls’ Choir, Cantate.

When working with PMD on a challenging Remembrance Day commission, The Five Acts of Harry Patch, I was struck by Maxwell Davies’ lack of condescension having provided us with quite a challenging work: “do not patronise young musicians, they can always do it, however challenging!”

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

The current lockdown has presented plenty of challenges for my musical groups, but we are starting rehearsals on Zoom shortly. We are keeping it simple, not doing whole performances but working on vocal technique, and enjoying the social side. It’s important to continue, to keep the flame alight amongst choral ensembles in preparation for times when it is safe to meet, rehearse and perform together.

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

Music-making is inherently sociable and creative, and it is great to work with such fantastic musicians, young and old, to achieve such rewarding and special opportunities together…

How would you describe your musical language?

It’s very varied! I enjoy most styles of music, from Renaissance choral works through to jazz and (some) pop! I have been lucky enough to have been exposed to the wonderful repertoire of the English cathedral tradition, but equally I am now involved with the teaching and production of music theatre and jazz.

Which works/performances are you most proud of?

I’ve already mentioned my association with the London Mozart Players. We did a St John Passion together which was highly memorable. Other memorable performances include Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, rehearsed over a weekend in the Royal Festival Hall; a production of Dido and Aeneas at the New Theatre Royal; a superb Christmas concert with the Milton Glee Choir and Royal Marines Association Band last year; and a recording of works for Remembrance with PGS, again with the London Mozart Players.

Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?

I’ve got wide interests in keyboard and choral music, from Tallis to Gospel, from Bach and Mendelssohn through to Gershwin, Sondheim and Freddie Mercury. Church organists have to improvise during services and this approach appeals to me, leading me to find an interest in jazz piano. During lockdown I have recorded and broadcast a series of well-known jazz ‘muses’ on YouTube and Facebook.

Which works do you think you perform best?

I love performing choral works, such as those by Bach, Handel and Mozart, as well as the wide variety of the English cathedral repertoire, but equally I enjoy performing solo roles such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Conducting the PGS Chamber Choir at the Royal Albert Hall in the annual televised Festival of Remembrance on BBC television. I conducted the massed Bands and PGS Chamber Choir, in the work entitled They shall not grow old, with Bryn Terfel and Catherine Jenkins.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

Keep an open mind on the kinds of music you will most like to perform, don’t put yourself in a box too early. Work and practice hard. Muck in, if only to gain credibility and experience. And listen to others’ advice!

How would you define success as a musician/composer?

Having an ability to inspire others, through listening and participation, to appreciate and experience the power and thrill of all kinds of music, and enabling inclusive music-making to all ages and abilities.

Andrew Cleary is a freelance teacher, accompanist, organist, choral director, conductor and examiner. He works at the University of Chichester as an Associate Lecturer, vocal coach and répétiteur, especially with students of musical theatre, and also at Portsmouth High School as a singing teacher. He conducts the Fareham Philharmonic Choir and the Milton Glee Choir, is the Assistant MD of the Lee Choral Society and is Music Director and Organist at St Peter’s Church, Bishop’s Waltham.

He always welcomes new members to join his choirs and even during his virtual rehearsals singers are encouraged to sign up and join.

The Fareham Philharmonic Choir has re-scheduled its performance of Bach’s St John Passion, postponed due to lockdown, to 6 March 2021 in Chichester Cathedral.

Andrew Cleary on MiP: https://musicinportsmouth.co.uk/?s=cleary


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