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Profile: Philip Drew, singer, choral trainer, organist, recorder and crumhorn player, composer and teacher

08/02/2021

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

I was born and bred in Portsmouth and sang in the choir of St Mark’s church where I also had my first organ lessons under Russell Shepherd.  I first studied singing with Freda Foster while in the 6th form, and took an Honours Music degree and Post Graduate Certificate in Education at Durham University.

Both my parents were from musical families and my maternal grandfather played in the Royal Marines Artillery Band before joining what is now the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as principal trombonist. My mother had 14 cousins in military bands!

My mother developed in me a love of musical theatre but since the countertenor voice is not used in this genre, my own involvement has been mainly back stage, particularly in lighting.  Indeed I am the only person to have made the transition from lighting designer to musical director in the history of Durham University Light Opera Group!

My choral experience has included a choral scholarship at Durham Cathedral and a lay-clerk’s post at Llandaff Cathedral (where I taught in the Cathedral school). While in Cardiff I continued my singing studies with the redoubtable Mme Hilger at the Welsh College of Music and Drama and subsequently with Andrew Phillips who trained me for my singing teaching diploma. Subsequently I have been a deputy singer at Guildford and Chichester Cathedrals for several years.

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

“Dep-ing” can be exciting and challenging, as it often consists of one short rehearsal before a service. You have to think on your feet. I can recall significant challenges when singing Tippett’s Canticles in Guildford with its modern idiom and Grayston Ives’ Edington Service in St Paul’s, with its enormous echo.

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

I have so much enjoyed the wonderful collaborative effort of singing the daily service in a Cathedral choir. I also enjoy the challenges of accompanying singers or instrumentalists on piano or organ.

I am currently playing organ duets with David Hansell. If we’re both at the keyboard, one can imagine the potential for the clashes of four hands and four feet! It’s hard to play the pedals because this is usually done by feel and in this instance we’re not sitting in our normal positions. If we are playing on two separate organs, these may be positioned up to 40’ apart, which means that you have to rely on visual rather than audible clues, especially in echoey churches such as the Church of the Holy Spirit in Southsea (where I am director of music).

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

I admire two English composers in particular: William Byrd and Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Both were by all accounts extremely likeable and gifted. Byrd was uncompromising about his Catholic faith, and wrote a huge number of pieces, most of which are a joy to perform. Vaughan-Williams especially considered the needs and abilities of amateur groups, encouraging them to have a go: “It’s better to do something badly than not at all”.

Which works do you think you perform best, and enjoy?

I love some of the organ music written in the late 18th and early 19th century, such as by John Stanley, Charles Burney, Samuel Wesley and his son Samuel Sebastian Wesley. They are elegant in style, melodic and very useful for voluntaries! It may be of interest that their works were not written for organs with pedals. Such an innovation only appeared from after the time when Mendelssohn visited Britain in 1829. Instead, the manuals were larger, with the keyboards sometimes extending down to the F below bottom C.

What have been your most memorable performing experiences?

In 1988 I was asked to set some Edward Thomas WW1 poems to music for a performance in Steep Church. Thomas composed many of his poems in the village.  I set A Collection of Birds for countertenor, piano, cello and flute and sang in the performance. Michael Hordern (of Paddington Bear voice-over fame) was also at the event reading some of the poems which had not been set to music. The influence of both Vaughan-Williams and Messiaen can be heard in the piece.

At the funeral service for Bishop Ian Ramsey at Durham Cathedral, Conrad Eden deafened the choir for the Alleluia in For all the Saints by using the big tuba stop. There wasn’t a dry eye in the building.

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

If you are looking at a professional career, go for it, but expect to have to practise hard and keep on top of things. Don’t give up if you are rejected. It’s not in itself a means of making much money, but you can earn money by teaching. And since they have experience of managing people, musicians are also often well-suited to working in HR!

How are you keeping yourself busy?

My music-making at the Church of the Holy Spirit and teaching voice at Chichester University is keeping going. The current hiatus has also allowed me to research aspects of musical theatre, which has helped with my teaching. I regularly record myself playing the organ for the church’s Facebook page.

I would like to encourage singers to keep singing, to practise daily and prepare for when they will be able to sing together again.

Philip Drew was born in Portsmouth in 1951. He started taking piano lessons at the age of 8 and his first involvement with church music was in the choir of St Mark’s Church, Portsea. He went on to learn the organ with the Organist and Choirmaster, Russell Shepherd. He read for an Honours degree in Music at the University of Durham where he was also a choral scholar in the Cathedral Choir. He continued his organ studies first with Conrad Eden and later with Alan Thurlow.

He took up a post as Alto Lay Clerk in Llandaff Cathedral Choir in 1975 and taught in the Cathedral School. In 1979 he became organist and choirmaster at Christchurch, Llanishen in Cardiff. 1981 saw a move to Derbyshire to be Director of Music in a boarding preparatory school. Then in December 1982, Philip moved back to Portsmouth as organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Southsea.

As well as his work at Holy Spirit Church, Philip is a visiting teacher of Singing at the University of Chichester. He has given organ recitals and accompanied choirs and choral societies in many venues in South Wales, Derbyshire and Southern England including playing regularly in the Tuesday lunchtime recital series at Marlborough Rd Methodist Church in St Albans. He also conducts the choirs Wyndcliffe Voices and Cantores Vagantes.

Philip is widowed with two grown-up, married children and four grandchildren. Interests outside of music include Trains, Buses, Architecture and brewing and drinking real ale.

Author: Simon O'Hea with Philip Drew

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