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Profile: Brian Moles, organist, teacher, singer and composer

23/02/2021

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career?

My musical beginnings were seeded when I was at a prep school and ended up joining a Parish choir in Windsor. The organist, Rick Erickson, also happened to be my school piano and singing teacher. He introduced a love and respect for choral music, in particular the music of Stanford and Vaughan Williams. He played a pivotal role in inspiring me to pursue music, even when I was having doubts during my teenage years.

Another great influence was Ron Ferris, who had taken on the role of Musical Director of Surrey Heath Choral Society at the time I was leaving school, and I took up the position of accompanist. He encouraged me to pursue my music career and to apply to Royal Holloway as an Organ Scholar, where I met Doctor (now Professor) Lionel Pike.

Lionel was another key influence for me – working with him as both lecturer and Director of the Chapel choir, I gained valuable insight and experience and cemented a love of choral music. I owe all three of them a debt of gratitude for the position I am in today.

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

Finding the role that fits you as a musician, I would say, has been the challenge. After leaving University I was not entirely sure in which direction my career was going. My twenties saw me acting as a Cathedral assistant organist; teaching primary and secondary classroom music in schools; a peripatetic music teacher; a freelance conductor, and singing as a lay clerk in a cathedral.

It was only in 2009 that, when I moved to Portsmouth to take on the position of Organist and Director of Music at St Mary’s Church, that I found my feet, so to speak. Portsmouth has become my home and I am very happy living and working in the city, contributing to the musical life through teaching in schools, my work at the church, and helping support the outreach work at the Anglican Cathedral. It has also given me time to focus on composing and arranging too.

I’ve always sought those musical opportunities that present a challenge in various ways – be it collaborating to provide music for a new youth theatre production, working with a composer and fellow conductor to produce new music outside in the round in front of a fire for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, or laying down jazz piano and backing vocals for a rock album – all these challenges present new and refreshing opportunities which I enjoy doing and, I suppose, allowing me to appreciate the many different facets of the musical world.

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

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a variety of musicians – both professional, semi-professional and amateur. Singing with a cathedral choir (St Albans) as a tenor lay clerk was a joy and delight: particularly to perform top quality music week in, week out, with a team of top-rate musicians and singers, was a real privilege.

Music is though a universal thing, and it’s been equally rewarding to introduce works to various different choirs and groups and to see them as they journey through from learning to enjoying this music, particularly if they felt it was beyond them. The reward of seeing others develop their musical abilities and confidence is an amazing thing: I’m proud to think I play a part in helping others be enlightened by music.

How would you describe your musical language?

There are definite English influences in my works – probably inspired by twentieth-century composers like Gerald Finzi and Herbert Howells. The harmonic language speaks to me and has always touched me in a profound way. If I could write as half as well as them, I would be happy! I’d like to think I follow in that English tradition. Recently I’ve developed a love of jazz and that idiom, and I am sure as my works mature there is more of an influence of this coming in too.

How do you work?

Often my compositions start life at the piano, exploring phrases and ideas. The ideas then grow out of that – in the old-fashioned way of pencil on manuscript paper! I then refine and often rewrite ideas to improve on what I have scribbled down, and then slowly bring the work together. This is true for all genres that I compose in – not just choral works (although these are my main compositional focus). I’ve written for various different instruments and genres, arranging as well as composing.

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

I’ve alluded to Howells and Finzi already, but I enjoy much of the 20th-century English world – I would add Vaughan Williams and Holst to that list. I have an appreciation for contemporary composers, but also equally a deep respect and admiration for the language of the Tudor world too. Some of the writing of English composers of the time of Henry VIII through to Elizabeth I (and beyond) is sublime and cannot be equalled.

Which works do you think you are able to perform best, and why?

Strangely, I enjoy performing contemporary works, or ones that challenge me. I think it’s the challenge of the new that I like, and I think respond well to.

Which works or performances are you most proud of?

That’s a hard one to answer – mainly due to the variety of performances that I have done, from directing large scale choir and orchestras, down to solo performances, or even working in the pit for staged musical productions, often producing music from scratch.

It’s equally rewarding helping young people take their first steps in performing, and seeing youngsters realise their potential is equally one that I gain great pleasure in.

I’ve been fortunate to work with the Anglican Cathedral in Portsmouth, helping deliver its outreach project to schools across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and it’s been wonderful to expose schoolchildren to a world of different musical styles they wouldn’t normally encounter – from great cathedral music to folk songs, even some Christmas carols! It’s amazing to be a part of that experience for them.

As a composer, recently I had a work premiered by the choir at St German’s Cathedral on the Isle of Man for their 40th anniversary of consecration – to see a work come to fruition and the response it had from both performers and those in attendance at its premiere has also been memorable.

What are your most memorable concert experiences?

I recall many choral evensongs sung and played whilst at university – singing the Great Service by William Byrd on a sultry June afternoon with the sounds of the choir echoing around the college chapel stick in my mind, or the performance of Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, at which I played the organ.

I was fortunate to be able to sing many concerts and services with the Cathedral choir in St Albans, and there are particular ones that stick in my mind, including a performance of the Messe Solennelle by Langlais in a three choirs’ concert, that was scintillating!

Being able to conduct a performance of Duruflé Requiem and Vivaldi’s Gloria with choir and orchestra in aid of the Music Foundation at St Mary’s was another moment that sticks in my mind, amongst many. There are many performances where the combination of the music, the performance and atmosphere have combined in such a way as to leave a mark on the memory.

Sometimes, however, the most memorable experiences don’t come from the singing – there have been moments in concert tours and the associated escapades related to them – quite often the music being enhanced by the musical escapades and anecdotes associated with them!

One such experience was helping page turn for an organ whilst holding up the front panel of the pedalboard which had come off mid concert! The organ was situated behind the audience, but the choir was able to see the whole thing and fought hard not to laugh at the sight of me comically holding the organ together. The organist was unfazed however, and finished playing to a resounding cheer. Moments like that sometimes make a concert.

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

Don’t give up! It’s a hard graft and it will take you on a path you sometimes don’t expect. Be prepared for challenges, opportunities and also things to go in strange directions at times – sometimes things don’t go the way you would like, but don’t despair and keep doing what you believe in and love, and you will persevere.

How would you define success as a musician?

The legacy we leave as performers, composers, and teachers – helping inspire others through our contribution to life and society through our musical endeavours. Whether big or small, the impact can make a difference to people, and to be able to do that, in whatever means, I think is a measure of success and is something I strive through, by directing, teaching, performing, and composing.

How are you keeping yourself usefully occupied and sane under lockdown?

Teaching on-line, recording, and through rehearsals over Zoom. It’s great to be able to see people in choirs on the screen and have that sense of connectivity. To help them with some kind of musical element to their lives is important, and whilst it can be strangely eerie playing through a piece and then the silence that follows, it’s reassuring to turn back and see faces smiling back and appreciating the music. It is the thought that there IS an end where we can get back together to make music that acts as a beacon of hope – music is a unifying force and it’s vital to keep people engaged with it, even from afar.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I honestly don’t know, but I hope I am still able to educate, inspire and encourage people through music, wherever I am!

What is your present state of mind?

Probably similar to many others! Frustrated, but hopefully we’ll weather this and looking forward to the future with hope.

 

Brian Moles is an organist, teacher, singer and composer, based in Portsmouth. A Masters in Music Graduate from Royal Holloway, University of London, he was both an Organ and Choral Scholar and, for a time, acting Director of Music of the Chapel Choir. For many years he had a diverse career, including the posts of Assistant Organist at St David’s Cathedral in Cardiff, Tenor Lay Clerk at St Albans Cathedral, whilst maintaining a busy career as a teacher: teaching both in the classroom and as a peripatetic, and as a freelance musician directing, performing, composing and singing with various choirs and musical groups.

He is currently Director of Music at St Mary’s Church in Portsmouth, where he leads the mixed voice choir, alongside a career teaching across the city, as well as helping deliver a successful musical outreach programme at Portsmouth Cathedral.

His work as an accompanist has seen him play with a variety of different choirs and group and in various genres, from working with small chamber choirs to Choral Societies, across all ages and abilities. He has made several performances on both Radio and TV, most notably as accompanist on BBC Songs of Praise, recorded at St. Mary’s. He is currently the accompanist for Fareham Philharmonic Choir.

As a musical director, he has also worked with a diverse variety of different choirs and musical groups – from acting as MD for shows presented by young people in theatres in Portsmouth and Winchester, to helping direct the shows for the National Youth Music Camps, based in Milton Keynes. He helped conduct a performance of Fire by David Bruce, as part of the cultural Olympiad in 2012, with Jeremy Backhouse and the Salisbury Community Choir – which was broadcast on Radio 4 that same year.

His work as a composer is widespread, with a variety of different works for various different genres, and performed across the UK and abroad, with many pieces commissioned, composed and performed by cathedral choirs, choral societies, and mixed ability school choirs. His music and style have been described as “sympathetic and approachable, and yet musically interesting and often with a complexity that encourages and enthuses performers of all abilities, often allowing them to realise their potential.” Works extend from simple choral motets, to a full-scale symphonic Requiem. Recent works have included a mass setting written for Portsmouth Cathedral choir, and a setting of the Te Deum Laudamus commissioned by Peel Cathedral on the Isle of Man, for the 40th Anniversary of their consecration.

Brian will be giving a recital of organ music from St Mary’s Church, streamed on the Organ Project’s page, on Thursday March 4th at 7:30pm. Please do visit www.theorganproject.org for more information.

Author: Simon O'Hea with Brian Moles

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