Keir is principal clarinettist with Southern Pro Musica. He is married to Sheila, who is Southern Pro Musica’s concert manager and who also looks after the performers back stage at the Petersfield Musical Festival. Simon O’Hea is in conversation with them.
Sheila, tell me about the influences on your interest in music and about your long association with the Petersfield Musical Festival.
I have always loved music and taking part, albeit in the chorus or backstage. I come from a musical family. My grandfather, Percy Burley, played the organ in the Methodist Church; members of my family took part in the G & S and the festival and my mother, Kay McLeod (previously Kay Blackstone) was also joint secretary of the Festival for several years.
My first connection with the Petersfield Musical Festival aged about 6 or 7 when I was at Moreton House School in The Spain, Petersfield. For 2 or 3 years I sang in the school choir, taking part in the ‘schools’ day’ concert. We learnt the songs by heart and, on the day of the concert, went to the then ‘Town Hall’ for the competitions, followed by rehearsal for the concert. The thrill of singing with an orchestra was so exciting with our lovely conductor, Dr Sydney Watson When I went to Byculla School in Rake, we were in the senior competitions and sang part songs.
When I was 16, I joined the Petersfield Gilbert & Sullivan Society – I think I was the youngest member. We performed Patience and I was completely blown away by the performing on stage. I only did one G & S because my family moved away from Petersfield. While working in Cambridge I did join the university operatic society and had enormous fun doing the Pirates of Penzance.
Later, when I moved back to Petersfield I re-joined the G & S Society and the Hi-Lights, taking part in many productions over 10 or more years. I also joined the Petersfield Ladies Choir with Beryl Jones. In those days we had ‘Ladies Day’ with competitions in the morning, followed by rehearsals and an evening concert. Michael Hurd wrote some wonderful music for 3or 4-part upper voices. My favourite was ‘Mrs Beeton’ which he wrote for Ruth Firth as Mrs Beeton. All the songs depicting wise instructions and recipes from the famous housekeeping book.
At that time the festival used to run a supper club for the soloists, orchestras etc. I think this was started by Chris Teale, who was secretary for many years. My sister, Jillie Francombe (then Booth) and I helped her and eventually took on the running of the supper club. For the Mrs Beeton concert we all dressed up as parlour maids and served food and drinks from decorated trolleys!
I knew the then Petersfield Musical Festival chairman Philip Young from my many years of working at Bedales School, where he was director of studies. Around 2017 Philip asked me to join the PMF committee and I was very happy to accept. I’ve been on it since then and my role is to look after the performers back stage.
Keir, tell me about the most important influences on your musical career.
I’m principal clarinettist with Southern Pro Musica, and have been a member since it started in 1991 and played in various orchestras and chamber wind ensembles in London. I began teaching the clarinet at Bedales School in 1977 whilst studying at RCM and, after my marriage to Sheila, in 1980 I moved to Petersfield.
I took up the clarinet at the age of 12. At my sixth form college, which had a big music department, Dr Swinburn very much fostered a love of music in me, and the clarinet in particular. I played in the Colchester chamber orchestra at the regular Mercury Theatre concert series. There, I heard some wonderful music and musicians, including the violinist Emanuel Hurwirtz, whose performance of Bach violin concerto I remember to this day. At the RCM, I was greatly inspired by Thea King, John McCaw and Stephen Trier. David Willcocks (at that time head of the College) kindly organised an additional grant so that I could continue my studies for another year.
And tell me about your teaching career.
I’ve been teaching for more than 40 years, and it’s been so pleasurable to have been influential in some small way to so many young lives. There’s nothing more rewarding than teaching.
Occasionally I taught a very naturally talented clarinettist. Sadly, these days, young people don’t seem to have sufficient time to devote to playing a musical instrument: they have always to consider the treadmill of exams.
Are there any composers whose works you particularly like to play?
Unfortunately, there’s a limited solo repertoire of fine composers for the clarinet: Mozart shines, and then there’s not a lot else until Nielsen in the early 20th century. That’s perhaps because of the dominance of the violin and piano in the intervening Romantic years. I most enjoy playing music by Mozart and Brahms. My favourite orchestral composer is Mahler. Although he didn’t write anything for solo clarinet his orchestral writing for the instrument is magical. The clarinet is a very flexible instrument.
What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?
With the requirement of only two clarinets in any reasonable sized orchestra, it’s best not to bank on getting lots of job offers! So, I would definitely recommend aiming to have an additional career in mind.
Sheila, what is your view on the future of the Petersfield Musical Festival?
The Festival has been around for many years (117, to be precise). It has shown itself to be adaptable, and has been extremely successful. In particular, giving younger people many opportunities through the Michael Hurd Fund. It would be good if younger people could be encouraged to take part in the choral concerts. These can be very exciting and rewarding. Of course we are always on the lookout for more volunteers to help run the festival.
Keir is playing at the lunchtime “Clarinet & string quartet” concert on Tuesday 13 February at Chichester Cathedral.