Music at Wolfson

Lynette Alcántara, College Director of Music, interviews PhD student James Westbrook, the outgoing President of the Music Society and Lunchtime Concert Series organiser

LA: Thank you, James, on behalf of the Music Society for all that you have done as Music Society President and Lunchtime Concert Series organiser.  Andrew Goldman has agreed to take on the mantle of Music Society President and I’m sure he’ll continue the wonderful work you have done.  Looking back over your period of office, I wonder if you could tell me about the highs and lows of organising the Lunchtime Concert Series?

JW: During the Series, we had artists of great quality, like Jane Bevan, and it is also worth mentioning that the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze has recently been presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s award for outstanding contribution to Chamber Music and Song.

I suppose, because of the level of organising, setting up equipment, and a risk of technology failure, the concert of electronic music by Stuart Russell was a tricky event.   It was a real shame, because few people turned up, but it was nice to bring more variety in; to bring some 21st century music to College. As we’ve got the Centre for Music and Science in Cambridge I feel we should support that.

LA: I liked the visual element that he brought, which was more of an installation event, something we’ve never had, in my experience.

JW: I guess the high point for me was the piano recital by Maiko Mori. I was very nervous about booking her as she was recommended to me by someone who had heard her play on a cruise liner. That’s all I knew.  When Maiko arrived, she asked if we had any wedges to stop the piano moving, and I wondered why; nobody’s ever asked that. But I realised when talking to her that she’d played on ocean liners all her life and the ships rock back and forth – that was what she was used to doing to stop the piano moving.

Her audience was the biggest we’ve ever had: around 100.  I think our regular audience has been building up. I do find that piano, or piano and voice, are most popular. If we have anything else, we have to work harder at publicity, except for Junior Prime Brass who have their own audience and are very, very good.

LA: They are playing with King’s Junior Voices in our summer concert in King’s Chapel; they do indeed have a good following.

But tell me about receiving the Donald & Beryl O’May Studentship; how has that affected you?

JW: Well it’s quite incredible, to be honest. I was in Italy doing some research in a museum when the email came saying that I’d got this grant. I couldn’t believe it; I’ve applied for AHRC and other grants before and they’ve taken months and months, and it’s all online and very complicated. But I filled in the Donald & Beryl O’May Studentship form by hand – it wasn’t complicated –  and I sent it off, never expecting to hear anything. When the email arrived to say I’d got it, I kept pinching myself, thinking someone can’t be recognising organology and guitar research. I’ve never had any financial security all my life, you know, I’ve written books and I’ve been out of pocket for everything I’ve done; never had any support in anyway, apart from friends’ support. I was almost in tears that Wolfson had chosen my project to support. It was a fantastic surprise.

LA: And what about your general thoughts on music at Wolfson and the other musicians who are here? I know you are a small number but you are a very energetic group.

JW: It’s a good quality I think and the enthusiasm is there. I think getting Dan Tidhar in as a Research Associate and harpsichordist is going to take music in a different direction. Andrew Goldman is also very committed and popular with the students. I don’t really know what happens in other colleges on the music side.

LA: The difference with the undergraduate colleges is that the students don’t have the responsibility of PhDs or family, and they have more time to get involved in music making. Here at Wolfson we have a very loyal, enthusiastic following for music, but people have other commitments. And I think that’s the difference between a graduate college and an undergraduate college. And, of course, there are organ and choral scholarships at those colleges which compel people to get involved. We don’t have a chapel choir, so we haven’t got that type of set up.

JW: The Wolfson choir has a very good reputation; whoever you speak to knows about the choir and speaks highly of them.

LA: That’s good to hear. They are improving from year to year. As you say with the Lunchtime Concerts, we’ve got a good core of members: Fellows, ex-students and PhDs who have been here a while, who continue to develop their skills. And then we get new, enthusiastic students coming through, like Michelle Phillips in the past, and you and Andrew Goldman at the moment, which invigorates the choir. But I think having that core of regulars helps.

The choir had a great trip to Thessaloniki this July to perform at the International Society for Music Education conference. It was certainly worth producing an audition video last summer. The choir also enjoyed the opportunity of singing Wayne Marshall’s Psalm 150 at the University Sermon in Great St Mary’s. But it was the performance of Bach’s St John Passion with St Mark’s Choir in Lent Term which will stay in my mind, particularly the wonderful singing of my Evangelist colleague from the BBC Singers, Christopher Bowen. I also enjoyed researching unperformed choral works by Prince Albert for our Michaelmas concert which commemorated the 150th anniversary of his death.

JW: Do other choirs have a mix of students and staff like we do?

LA: Very few that I know of, so we’re unusual in that respect. Lucy Cavendish has a women’s choir open to all members, and King’s Voices (a mix of Fellows and students) sing services when the King’s Chapel Choir have their day off.  Our choir is non-auditioned (for College members) and inclusive, irrespective of age and College status. I believe very strongly that that should be the way forward. We shouldn’t try to compete with the undergraduate choirs; we haven’t got choral scholarships, or chapels, or large numbers of music students. But I think we have a different ethos here that goes along with the inclusivity of the College’s style.  I’d love to have even more students join us. It gives members the opportunity to sit alongside people they wouldn’t come across otherwise. Choirs build connections for life (and we have several choir marriages).

JW: The other thing we should mention is the piano – on the whole the performers have been fine, but one or two artists have said that it would be nice to have something better.

LA: The instrument has served us well for twenty years and has been overhauled, which has given it an extra five years or so, but there’s not a great deal more that can be done to it. Andrew Goldman’s stunning performance at the Mary Bevan Recital on Sunday really tested the instrument to the extreme (the other wonderful performer was harpist Anne Denholm). We’re currently fundraising for a new piano and have already had several generous donations.  The total stands at £13,000 so far, but our appeal has a long way to go (supporters can give online at ).