Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career or interest in music?
I’ve been lucky to come from a musical family and to have had excellent musical schooling, thanks to Bedfordshire’s peripatetic music services. I sang in choirs from a young age and learned piano, violin and trombone.
I wasn’t particularly dedicated to personal practice but very much enjoyed ensemble music-making. The brilliant thing about learning the trombone was that I discovered it is an instrument that crosses most musical style and genres and that has always been important to me.
I read music at the University of Birmingham, where we were encouraged to connect music-making with scholarship. I’ve done that ever since. I went to work for the Royal Opera House and to study conducting with Michael Rose and others before I moved to Newcastle to take a job at the university there, organising concert series and conducting their orchestra. It was a brilliant apprenticeship to work on scores by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Gershwin etc. and I was encouraged to pursue postgraduate studies that linked research and practice in exploring the functions and meanings of music that defy genre boundaries.
As a trombonist, I’d always dabbled in jazz but my study of Gershwin led me to Duke Ellington and other composer bandleaders, who formed the subject of my PhD. I’ve always been interested in what music means for people and how it functions as a vital tool for expression – its power is often underestimated – and I became especially interested in how musical styles relate to understandings of race and resistance to racism. I have my PhD supervisor, Richard Middleton, to thank for that.
What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?
There have been so many because I am inclined to take on fairly difficult projects for amateur musicians to pull off but, when they do come off, that’s part of the reward for everyone involved.
Sometimes it’s a question of scale – I’m not scared of BIG projects that are a challenge to organise, like Carmina Burana with film projection in Portsmouth’s King’s Theatre or the Pompey Messiah with the Solent Orchestra, the choirs of the University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth Cathedral and St Mary’s Church, Portsea (see note 1 below).
I think most people would rather commit to a project that involves a challenge – it’s motivating. Sometimes the challenge is materials (e.g. the first performance of Handel’s Italian funeral anthem) or the sheer difficulty of the music for the ensemble to realise. The latter tends to play out more in the rehearsal room than in the concert (thank goodness) but sometimes it makes for hard work for everyone involved and that can be demoralising.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve addressed emerged from a choral programme I devised called Songs of Pride, Freedom and Resistance because it raised some uncomfortable but urgent discussions about racism and colonialism within choral culture (see note 2 below). The challenge to address diversity and accessibility is ongoing and perhaps one of the greatest any of us face in music.
What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?
Working with other musicians is what music is all about for me – when we work together well we are somehow stronger than the sum of the parts and achieve results we never thought possible.
The key challenge is getting everyone to pull together towards a clear goal and I think that involves not just great communication skills but also an ability to sense what the music might mean for us and to get others to share in that defining of meaning though rehearsal and performance.
The rehearsal part is perhaps more important and the challenges of collaboration usually come from a lack of understanding of that coupled with a lack of trust or shared understanding of the enterprise – a good rehearsal process really helps that but there are some musicians that would rather not rehearse and even more that would not care to listen to someone else’s performance for its meaning.
Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?
Charles Villiers Stanford – I’m not Irish but I edited the first publication of his Cello Concerto in 2012 and I really felt a connection with his situation as someone working in a university setting but striving to practice as a musician.
Which works do you think you are able to perform best, and why?
Handel, probably, due to my upbringing and Haydn because the expression in his music really suits my style as a choral director and the energy of the students and staff that I direct.
Which works or performances are you most proud of?
I think the Pompey Messiah project of March 2017 (see note 1 below) stands out for me, not just because it was a great occasion (200 performers and 550 audience) but because revisiting Messiah in a version close to that performed in Portsmouth in 1812 was really meaningful to local people, raised money for two local charities, and connected research with practice in a really meaningful way. It addressed issues bound up with the insertion of arias by the great diva Angelica Catalani and other 1800s performance conventions to get the audience to reflect on underlying and highly gendered values and structures. This sort of work is transformative, not least for me – I’ve tried to work in that way ever since.
What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?
Don’t rule out working within academia – it’s a great way to keep practical music going at a high level within a structure that is not as vulnerable as the freelance lifestyle. I know, because I used to be a freelancer.
How would you define success as a musician?
Finding great pleasure and meaning in making music as a vehicle for ongoing self-expression and discovery.
Further recent articles of interest
Note 1. Messiah and Portsmouth: Then and Now Exhibition at St Mary’s Church, Portsea – framing the impact of the performance of Messiah (in the version given in Portsmouth in 1812) on March 18 2017. Concert page on MiP.
Dr George Burrows is Reader in Performing Arts and Faculty Research Degrees Coordinator at the University of Portsmouth. He conducts the University of Portsmouth Choir.
He is co-editor of the international journal, Studies in Musical Theatre, since he founded the publication with Intellect in 2007. He founded the Song, Stage and Screen international series of conferences and sits on its advisory board.
He completed his PhD in music at the University of Newcastle in 2010, and also holds a Master of Letters (MLitt) in music from that institution. Both his PhD and MLitt theses looked at jazz for the way such music represented discourses of race, gender and sexuality.
He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy and holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education from the University of Portsmouth.
His undergraduate studies were at the University of Birmingham where he read for their BMus (Hons) degree and took instrumental and vocal lessons at the Birmingham Conservatoire (now a part of Birmingham City University).
He worked at the Royal Opera House on leaving Birmingham and then at the University of Newcastle where he organised the Kings Hall Concerts, conducted the university’s orchestras and lectured undergraduates on the Popular Music and Folk and Traditional Music programmes.