Colin did a music degree at Manchester University and then went to the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) in Cincinnati, USA, to study for a Masters Degree in Orchestral Conducting. He spent four years in Cincinnati in a variety of conducting posts, before moving to Michigan to take up the position of Director of Orchestral Activities at Albion College.
In May 2000, Colin was appointed Director of Music at the University of Portsmouth. In September 2001, he founded the University of Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra, and five years later the University of Portsmouth Wind Band. In 2004 he brought the international chamber music series ‘Music in the Round’ to Portsmouth, initially at Portsmouth Cathedral and now at the Portsmouth Guildhall.
In 2015, his production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro brought the University of Portsmouth Dramatic & Musical Society (UPDMS) to international attention, with an interview broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme which was picked up by NPR in the USA. This production also won an ‘Accolade of Excellence’ at the National Operatic & Dramatic Association Southern Area Awards. After a six-year project working on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, Oxford University Press published a critical edition in November 2016, and this stimulated enough interest for another Today Programme interview.
Most recently, he worked on a production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, the first by UPDMS to use the original two-act version together with the original orchestration. The society is the oldest in the south of England, and Colin is now planning its 100th-anniversary celebrations, which will take place on 26 & 27 February 2021.
Simon O’Hea is in conversation with Colin.
Who or what were the main influences on your decision to pursue a career in music?
My parents assumed that I would follow them into some kind of career in science: my mother was a maths teacher. But I’d found an old violin the loft, and started to play it, as well as the piano; and in my late teens I was much encouraged in composition and conducting by my music teacher. Whilst at school I joined the National Youth Orchestra and loved the social aspects of performing.
Who or what are the most important influences on your musical life?
Whilst reading music at Manchester University, I discovered the Lindsay String Quartet, the University’s Quartet in Residence, under the direction of its founder Peter Cropper. Peter not only taught me violin but also showed me how to make music come alive, and how to make it communicate a series of strong emotions. Playing in the University String Quartet was now exciting! Read an article about Peter.
I also developed my conducting skills at this time, conducting the University Chamber Orchestra, and after graduating I moved to the USA to study for a Masters Degree in Orchestral Conducting. I’d considered taking conducting up as a profession with professional orchestras but soon realised that I preferred conducting amateur orchestras.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Conducting operas, as I regularly do at Portsmouth University, is really hard: you have to keep an eye on both the orchestra and the stage, and deal with the egos of actors!
What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?
Only a collective effort results in good music, and that in itself gives me pleasure when it goes well!
Sport is often cited as being exemplary of teamwork, but music-making is the more so. Take a typical orchestra of 40-50 people. They all have to give and take, listen and then communicate all the time. Playing music well together is essentially something anti-competitive.
Sometimes the lead oboe takes a key role; the other instrumentalists have to listen. Then the leadership is passed to another section. The leader is never drowned.
The conductor has a particular part to play, which is to bring out the best in the musicians, but has to remember that they don’t actually produce the sound, the musicians do! By contrast, if you are a composer then you need a strong creative sense and the ability to communicate something unique and meaningful to the audience. By the way, few composers are good conductors!
How do you work?
One of my key roles as conductor is to help the orchestra to get inside the musical language. I’m also very keen to faithfully re-create the music’s original colour. Not everyone shares this view.
Which works/performances are you most proud of?
Each year I have the privilege of giving many students a new experience, of introducing them to music that they probably don’t know, and bringing on their skills. I feel proud of them each time I’ve been able to perform with them.
Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?
Anything to do with Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6. Why Beethoven? He was hugely creative: he could make his music mirror life, in all its beauty and ugliness.
What have been your most memorable concert experiences?
When I was 10 years old, I was given the choice of going to a bonfire night or hearing the London Philharmonic playing Mahler’s Symphony No.1. I sat right behind the orchestra and could see everything. I’ve not forgotten the way that piece of music made me feel.
When I was at university, the Lindsay String Quartet used to play in a small converted cinema which had a glorious acoustic. I simply loved their cycle of Beethoven’s Quartets.
What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?
You need to be determined and passionate about your adopted profession! It’s never been a way to earn a lot of money. In addition, these days it’s unfortunately more important to be well connected than to be talented. On the other hand, if you succeed, then you can combine a wonderful hobby with work!
What are your plans for the next twelve months?
2021 is the centenary of the University of Portsmouth Dramatic and Musical Society (UPDMS), which is the oldest amateur dramatic society in the south of England. We are looking to entice back alumni from over the ages for a show and gala concert in February 2021, so watch this space.
More immediately, I’m very concerned about the impact this current crisis is having on arts organisations and on the incomes of freelance musicians. Most venues run on very tight budgets, and if they have to cancel concerts they essentially have to close. That in turn means the non-payment of any fees due to performers, so those people have seen their incomes slashed to zero with immediate effect. If you wish to make a donation either to an arts organisation or to individual performers, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to advise.