/Q & A – John Holland: Composer and Conductor

Q & A – John Holland: Composer and Conductor

On Saturday 3 November, the wind band, the Lambeth Wind Orchestra (LWO) shall be performing a classical music concert dedicated to women’s music. Its conductor, John Holland speaks to me about the inspiration behind the concert, what it’s like working alongside composer Elizabeth Winters, and his opinion on the current state of music education and the position of women in the classical music industry.

What’s the inspiration behind the Concert of Women’s Music?
As part of my work as a composer with London Composers Forum, I have successfully staged two events around International Women’s Day in previous years, featuring performances of the music of our own women composer members and beyond; they were also discussion events, opening up the floor to the composers and audience to freely discuss topics around music, publishing, performance, perception, recognition, equality, choice, etc. and I suggested to the Lambeth Wind Orchestra committee that a concert entirely dedicated to women’s music seemed timely, which they accepted with enthusiasm. The concert title (Breaking the Sound Barrier) is a play on words akin to ‘shattering the glass ceiling’ and will hopefully challenge the audience to reconsider their own perceptions about where music by women has come from, where it is now and how it can go forward into the future. Our aim is to also open up ideas to other bands and encourage them to stage concerts featuring more music by women themselves; we are making some of the music from this concert available to bands from across the country to help them develop their repertoire.

You conduct the Lambeth Wind Orchestra. How did this come about?
LWO was formed in May 2008 by a group of like-minded musicians in south London wanting something more progressive than other wind ensembles were doing at the time; I was brought on board about 5 months later, as I was already contracted with another group, so we are both now celebrating 10 years of music-making together. There are quite a lot of bands in the south London area, but I like to think that a combination of unusual repertoire and the dedication of our players have led us to be the diverse ensemble we are today.

Tell me about the musicians of LWO. What are their specialisms and how do you rehearse and work together?
Playing in a community band is a hobby for everyone, so there are a multitude of people represented in the membership, from students, to the retired, to those who work for Government, for themselves and everything else in between; the gender balance is roughly 50/50, although there are slightly more women. We do require that players meet a minimum performance standard, simply to ensure that the music is accessible enough but allowing room for development and not causing concern – we do not audition, and that’s fairly standard for most bands up and down the country. As we play such a varied repertoire, it’s difficult to pin down certain specialisms, but they have cultivated a good sense of character for most genres and performs with as much confidence as it can; we meet once a week and rehearsals vary in success, of course, but there are schedules in place and section managers to ensure that everyone knows what’s happening and when.

How did you come to work with the composer Elizabeth Winters?
In December 2008, I won a British Composer Award for a chamber orchestra piece called ‘Green Sky’, which won the Making Music category, recognizing achievement for amateur music-making. The following year, Elizabeth Winters won the same category and we had met a few times at various events in between. I said, even back then, that I wanted to bring in more new work for band by women into the repertoire and Lizzie was keen to compose something. We premiered her ‘Playing With Destiny’ in the autumn of 2010 and are looking forward to presenting it again as part of Breaking the Sound Barrier on 3 November; the work demands something more from the musicians than the other works on the programme, in that the descriptive nature of the narrative and the complexity of the music is inherently contemporary classical music, something far outside the comfort zones of most people that play in community bands.

What other composers are the audience expected to hear on November 3, and why did you decide to choose their music?
There are two UK premieres – one from Australia, in Catherine Likhuta’s playful ‘Me Disagrees’ and the other, from the US, Lauren Bernofsky’s intricate ‘The Duxbury Fanfare’; the former, a full band expansion of an argumentative trio for piano (the composer’s instrument), flute and alto sax and the latter, a brass quintet of two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba – it was always a conscious desire to represent the music of women from across the world, alternating the scope from full band to smaller ensemble to further emphasise that diversity. Historical music by women is also represented by a performance of Amy Beach’s ‘Pastorale’ for wind quintet and three new bespoke transcriptions of orchestral pieces; Louise Farrenc’s ‘Second Overture’ (1834), Ethel Smyth’s ‘The Wreckers’ (Overture, 1906) and Lili Boulanger’s ‘D’un matin de printemps’ (1918, marking her centenary). We have been fortunate enough to receive funding for these transcriptions by the Ambache Charitable Trust, who strive to make women composers from history more recognised – the scope of these composers and their place in history is intriguing and act as a grounding contrast for the more contemporary works on the programme.

When did you realise that you wanted to become a classical music composer and conductor?
I have been playing music since an early age and spent most of my teens listening to pieces and audio transcribing them (something I still do now); this inherent desire to capture all the lines for certain instruments must have stayed with me as I went through high school, going on to GCSE then A-Level music, composing folders’ worth of pieces in the process. I have never wanted to go into music full-time, as the market is already at bursting point with similar-aged people marking their own path and it’s not really appealing, so that’s why I enjoy working with amateur musicians, because I have a job that frees me up for the evenings to make music, putting me on the same level. Aside from winning the British Composer Award, which didn’t exactly open as many doors as I thought it would, I am content with the quantity of works that I’ve created over the years, with many arrangements, too, and happy to continue like that.

Over time, more female composers, musicians and conductors are making a mark in the classical music arena. Do you think the classical music industry is doing enough to make female musicians feel more welcome to publish and promote their work or do you think that things could be improved?
From the discussions I’ve instigated through my IWD events, the general feeling is that the industry is becoming more ‘woke’ to the idea of women as composers and somehow, they are not treated as a ‘novelty’ in the establishment in the same way that it used to (The Proms being a good example). The arrival of social media and associated reach is a useful tool in self-promotion and can be a good way to be noticed, but without the support of arts organisations and active performances in the real world, existing online can only really be short-term as people always find something more interesting and unfollow on a whim. I am more interested in what women can bring to the world through their own music, rather than conforming to the confines of classical music – publishing is a tough nut to crack, as houses will either embrace new composers or not, and in the 21st century, surely any artistic expression by any gender should be treated as equally valid and important to share with the world? Gender parity is something that I’m particularly keen on addressing, and our own efforts in the band will ensure that going forward, as a legacy from this forthcoming concert, all future programmes will feature at least one piece by a female composer – if every ensemble of our type were to think the same way, that would certainly help to break down that particular obstacle.

What about cuts and changes to children’s arts and music education at schools. Do you think this is a step back from progress?
Regrettably, I don’t keep my finger on the education pulse as much as I should, but any cuts in funding to the artistic subjects in schools is always unwise, as they often adversely affect other subjects. Some schools are often forced to cancel music lessons due to cost and this is, of course, upsetting for both the students and the teachers concerned – striking a balance between the minimum provision and what’s financially possible shouldn’t compromise the quality of the education provided, but unfortunately, I think it does. We are moving towards a state where music, in particular, is looked upon as an ‘elite’ subject, accessible to those who can afford it, and that should never the case; a definite backward step. That said, schools could be creative in the way that they actively involve children in music during assemblies or other all-school gatherings, simply to try and connect as a whole everything that can’t be achieved in an individual classroom – the learning of a school song, forming a massed school choir, etc. can be a way of maintaining that connection with the arts that to many now seems unattainable without funding.

The Concert of Women’s Music shall take place from 6. 30pm (with a pre-talk) at Vaughan Williams Auditorium on November 3, 2018. Click here for more information and to book tickets.