The Tonbridge Philharmonic Society perform Bizet’s opera at St Stephen’s Church on Saturday. Eileen Leahy caught up with their conductor, Matthew Willis – who always wears something memorable on stage – to hear all about ‘Tonphil’, as they are known
How long have you been the Music Director of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society?
I have been with TPS for three years, since September 2014.
Why did you take on the role?
I wanted the role as, unusually for an amateur music society, they have both an orchestra and a full chorus, rehearsed by the same music director.
This allows us to explore a wider repertoire than other groups may have
the opportunity to.
Can you tell us a little bit about the TPS and its history?
Tonphil – as it is colloquially known –
was formed firstly of a choir, just after World War Two, in 1946.
In the minutes from the society’s inaugural meeting, it states it was set up to ‘build into a strong virile fellowship all who valued the practise and performance of great Choral Works as well as other musical activities’.
An orchestra was formed 12 years later, and last year was the 70th anniversary of the society.
With over 150 members, it goes from strength to strength.
How often do you rehearse and perform?
The choir and orchestra rehearse with me once a week – the orchestra on Monday evenings, the choir on Wednesday evenings, at Tonbridge School.
We perform up to five concerts each season; two are purely orchestral ones, three are choral concerts; and then we also have our community Round Table Family Carols in the stunning Tonbridge School Chapel at Christmas.
What do you think being part of Tonphil gives its members?
It has an exciting, friendly and relaxed atmosphere.
I have a focused rehearsal technique that challenges and teaches members
to deliver what is required to perform
to a high standard so we can impress
Members can have singing lessons
with me (in both group and individual sessions) to encourage them to develop
a healthy vocal technique that will help deliver higher performance standards.
When did you first get into classical music and know
it was the career for you?
I was first attracted to music as a young child, taking up singing, trumpet, piano and composition.
After I was offered a place at Trinity College of Music in my teens, I began to realise I could move on
to have a career as a professional musician.
What do you most enjoy about a career in music?
I love the variety that each music ensemble I work with brings to my life – and the friendships I have made across the world as a result of my music career.
Can you tell us more about this year’s summer concert?
This summer we are very excited to be presenting a concert version of Bizet’s famous opera Carmen, with full orchestra, chorus and three fantastic professional soloists from the London stage.
And what you hope the audience will enjoy most?
We are performing it in English, using the English National Opera’s text, and we hope the audience will enjoy the high drama, sultry passion and a playful performance.
Can you give us a clue to what memorable clothing you might be wearing?
The choir have bets on it, I hear…
I wouldn’t want to let them know now, but I will make sure my outfit doesn’t distract them too much from their performance.
What do you like to do when you are not conducting the Tonbridge Philharmonic?
I love to walk my dog along the river, read books, learn new languages and cook for my friends.
The Tonphil welcomes new members to its choir and sections of the orchestra.
It helps if you can read music, and the orchestra has certain performance level standards due to the nature of the increasingly challenging and exciting repertoire it is now performing.