Profile: Philip Young, Musical Director of the Petersfield Musical Festival, and the Festival of Young Composers

On Sunday 4 February at 10 AM at TPS Studio, Petersfield Musical Festival is hosting its eighth competition for young composers, giving an ideal opportunity for imaginative musicians to share their creations with new audiences and receive expert feedback from a panel of judges.

This was very much the brainchild of Philip Young. After more than 40 years of involvement with the Petersfield Musical Festival, including two spells as chairman, he is stepping down as Musical Director later this year. Simon O’Hea is in conversation with him.

What have been your achievements while you’ve been involved with the festival?

The festival has developed a lot since 1990. It used to comprise the two choral concerts, the Petersfield Orchestra and the youth concerts, all within a week. Over time there’s been a development towards a more varied programme, to include a wider range of local groups, a lunchtime recital connected to the Michael Hurd Fund, and most recently a family concert.

With the Youth Concerts, which I’ve been involved with since 1983, I’ve seen the benefits of schools collaborating on various items, and putting on a show that is good in its own right. For the younger children in particular, this can lift them to a higher level than what they normally experience as a ‘school concert’. These events may involve as many as eleven schools; it’s a logistical jigsaw, and choosing music that will work for everyone takes a lot of preparation.

The Michael Hurd Fund for Young Musicians was started during my time as Musical Director. Michael was a big name in school music-making in the 1960s and 1970s. He lived in Liss and was involved with the festival as chairman, and later president, and believed in the merits of local music making. At his memorial concert in 2007 we started a fund to encourage young musicians. It was initially set up to give grants to support budding performers. Subsequently it widened its scope to managing its own events, among them the biennial Festival of Young composers, which was started in 2010. I’m proud of the fact that many people who’ve won awards and prizes from the Fund have gone on to professional careers in performing and composing.

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

I’ve not really had a “musical career” as such. My career has actually been a hybrid of music, teaching, administration, literature and critical thinking. But these aspects go well together and have really helped with working with the festival.

My parents were very supportive and encouraging; they bought a grand piano, and in due course arranged for me to have composition lessons. I started writing music at an early age, and by the age of thirteen I was doing harmony and counterpoint exercises. I was also encouraged to enter competitive festivals.

One of my most formative experiences was to have responsibility for music events as a teenager. At school I joined the organising committee for a student-led music group in Ipswich and by the age of 17 was conducting a choir. I could see that deciding the repertoire and pulling the musicians together was only half of the effort needed for a successful performance; you also had to put out the chairs, design the publicity and balance the budget!

I also got involved with ‘civic concerts’ in Ipswich, welcoming touring orchestras as a steward, and busily getting the autographs of soloists.

After schooldays, I read English at Cambridge, followed by two postgraduate years for the BMus.

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

One of my biggest challenges is that I’ve always found music more difficult than words. I rashly chose Mahler’s 1st Symphony to conduct with the Cambridge University Music Society (the senior conductor was David Willcocks). It just about came off, but I realised that I wasn’t suited to conducting as a career.

I’ve had a long teaching career, including being director of studies. I’ve got a lot of admiration, born out of experience as a teacher, for those who teach music to classes of 13 or 14-year-olds. It’s hard!

I was an Associated Board examiner for 17 years. It’s a challenge to assess performances on every instrument that turns up.

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

There’s a particular and special sensation, which I liken to flying within a flock of birds – keeping time with the others, and “flowing” through the music. I feel this particularly when I’m accompanying a soloist or singer: you are with someone else in their performance and following their nuances and empathising with what they are doing. At the same time you have to keep the spontaneity of playing your own part.

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

My approach is not to like or dislike a composer, but to try to understand what they are up to. I write programme notes for Southern Pro Musica and others, covering biographical and historical points as well as describing the music itself, and I aim to communicate to audiences what they might appreciate when attending a concert. You have to be enthusiastic but also quite dispassionate about it all.

What are your most memorable experiences, either as a performer, composer or listener?

Apart from (just) getting through Mahler 1, I once played to John Ogden, a phenomenally gifted concert pianist, as part of the weekly recitals that I gave at Champneys Forest Mere Spa at Liphook. John got up and played some Scriabin afterwards. The biggest compliment I’ve ever been paid was when he asked me, on the same occasion, if I’d been a student of Clifford Curzon, a highly-regarded pianist.

At Cambridge, students were invited to submit their own compositions  to the University Music Society and I was able to conduct my own Five Songs from the Tempest for chorus and orchestra.

Probably my most memorable recent experience as a listener was a piano recital by Joanna McGregor at LSO St Luke’s, which was fantastic – such virtuosity and nuancing.

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

I feel that people need to go for it, but with their eyes wide open: it may not turn out as they expect. It sounds so lovely to play music all the time, but there’s much more to a musical career than that. But music is good for you; it’s calming and interesting, and good for mental and physical health; it’s sociable, and apparently promotes alpha waves (which are associated with the benefits of meditation) – without you even having to think about all that.

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time?

Simply being in the garden, picking food that I’ve grown!

About Philip

Philip Young read English and music at Cambridge, and then taught music at Bedales, followed by two years teaching music and English at a Huddersfield sixth form college. He spent a decade as a freelance musician, mostly teaching piano, conducting and examining. In 1980 he became conductor of Fernhurst Choral Society, and followed his predecessor onto the committee of the Petersfield Musical Festival. In 1990 he became chairman, a position he occupied until 2003 and again from 2008 to 2022.

Examining for the Associated Board took him across the UK and to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. He rejoined the music department at Bedales in 1986 and was director of studies there from 1995 to 2007, during which time he taught music, classical civilisation and critical thinking. Since “retirement” he has continued his involvement with local groups; as well as the Musical Festival, he has for many years been a member of Winton Players, and since 2009 has worked as accompanist or musical director for many productions by Petersfield Theatre Group.

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