Tonbridge Philharmonic Society turns 70

Matthew Willis takes a bow after a performance by Tonbridge Philharmonic Society at Tonbridge School

Matthew Willis takes a bow after a performance by Tonbridge Philharmonic Society at Tonbridge School Chapel - Credit: Archant

Matthew Willis, Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s music director, is making its 70th year a memorable one. Words by: Sarah Sturt. Pictures by: Jon Whitmore

Matthew Willis salutes the violin solo performance of this predecessor Robin Norrish

Matthew Willis salutes the violin solo performance of this predecessor Robin Norrish - Credit: Archant

As the light faded behind Tonbridge Castle and the musicians preparing for the second half of their splendid Proms at the Castle orchestral and choral concert started to blend into the gathering darkness, a white-suited figure bounded onto the stage. And lit it up.

“It’s The Man from Del Monte!” cried an exuberant Matthew Willis, and the audience loved him even more. For this is no ordinary conductor. Matthew has the charisma that allows him to both engage with crowds – and this was a very mixed gathering on Castle Lawn of the old and in some cases the very young, of first-timers and opera buffs, families and friends picknicking from hampers – while also uniting his group of 160 musicians that form Tonbridge Philharmonic Society.

And the white suit not only cuts a dash, it serves a practical purpose, as Matthew explains: “It was purely to do with visuals – on a big stage you can’t really see, especially as the light fades. Audience engagement is becoming more and more part of the conductor’s role so it’s expected now that you will talk to the audience in some fashion, either in a pre-concert talk or during the performance, intervals or after the performance, so you actually get off the pedestal and are not this distant figure.

“A lot of my professional experience has been in opera, for example I was assistant conductor in Barcelona for eight years, so being surrounded by a global theatre scene you gain the confidence.”

Proms at Tonbridge Castle

Proms at Tonbridge Castle - Credit: Archant

I’m chatting with Matthew in The Ivy House pub, close to Tonbridge School where he will later start his Monday evening class with the orchestra (the singers rehearse with him on Wednesdays). He’s come to Tonbridge by train from home just outside London and cycled up the High Street to meet me on his foldable Brompton bike, which he props up next to us.

Matthew took up the position of Music Director with the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society in 2014 and says he has always enjoyed working with inspiring amateur ensembles and enabling these groups to excel beyond their own expectations.

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That certainly seems to be the case with the Tonbridge group, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and is building up to a very special concert this month, which will include not only the much-loved Enigma Variations by Elgar, but also a little-known piece by Gustav Holst, The Cloud Messenger.

The largest of Holst’s ‘Indian’ works, it tells the story of an exiled Indian poet who sends a cloud towards the Himalayan mountains to relay the message of his love to his lonely wife.

The Man from Del Monte leading from the front

The Man from Del Monte leading from the front - Credit: Archant

“It hasn’t been performed in the UK since the 1980s with the LSO and when I mentioned it to the committee, they hadn’t heard of it,” admits Matthew. “But they listened and apart from a few who were worried whether it would sell, they loved it. My philosophy for all performances is that if the performers are enjoying it and have something to say about it, they will persuade other members of their family and friends to come and listen.”

He adds: “Younger, older audiences – it doesn’t matter to me, one of the reasons Tonbridge chose me was partly to do with my experience but partly because I am a relatively young person [he’s 39] and can relate to a younger audience. And as you saw at the Castle, I have no problems standing in front of and talking to an audience of 1,000 people!

“I am hoping that over time we will reach out to new audiences and indeed since that concert and the start of our autumn meetings, the choir has had at least 10 new members join, which is incredible. I am so happy that we seem to be a welcoming group.”

That welcome extended earlier this year to 33 members of the Evangelische Kantorei from Tonbridge’s twinned town of Heusenstamm, who came and stayed with members of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society to perform Handel’s Messiah together to a packed house at Tonbridge School Chapel.

Join the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society

Join the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society - Credit: Archant

While 70 seems a great milestone for the Society to have reached, Matthew tells me that there are a number of far older Philharmonic companies, some having even passed the century mark. “Nationally, we are a country of amateur musicians and we always have been. We never really went down the whole state funding route that the Germans did, so we rely on our amateur orchestras and choirs to be able to provide live music in towns and cities across the country that don’t have the London Symphony Orchestra or the Birmingham or Manchester-based groups on their doorstep. So we have to pick up the gaps. It’s wonderful that live music making still appeals to so many.”

The Society performs its large-scale concerts in Tonbridge School chapel, a beautiful building whose gilt work and Neo-Gothic architecture lends its own pathos.

Orchestral performances take place at local churches including St Stephens and the newly refurbished parish church, St Peter and St Paul.

While Tonbridge is Matthew’s weekly permanent position, he also works on many other projects, travelling around the world and to Russia at least twice a year for opera galas.

Music has been part of his life since piano, singing and trumpet lessons as a child before he moved on to composition. He took trumpet, piano and composition as major studies at Trinity junior department, then went on to the Royal College of Music as a trumpet player and composer. After the first year a degree in conducting was written especially for him and he graduated in conducting and composition.

So what makes a great conductor, especially in Matthew’s case, who he had big shoes to fill? He replaced Robin Morrish, who conducted his last concert with the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society in 2014 before retiring after 44 years of distinguished service with the Society.

One of the standout moments of the Proms at the Castle was Matthew conducting a violin solo by Robin playing Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, when the mutual respect between the musicians was plain to see.

Matthew smiles at the question. “As I tell my conducting students, it’s 80 per cent strong people management skills, 10 per cent is your absolute bread and butter musicianship, then 10 per cent is the one thing you can’t teach; that charisma which is the ability to bring people together, forge a whole out of 160 individual parts and then make the performance happen.”

What if Kent Life readers were thinking of joining the Society, what should they expect? “Like most organisations we have under-25s right up to those in their 70s and 80s. That’s the joy of the job, you get to work with people who have little experience and with those who have lots. I absolutely love it when I get one of my members come to me and say ‘I’ve performed this five times now and the first was with Sir Malcolm Sargent!’

“All age groups and abilities are welcome, as long as you have enthusiasm. The orchestra needs a little bit of skill because of the standard of the music they’ll be playing, but with singers, as long as you look after your voice you can keep singing until a very old age. One of my tenors was singing the most gorgeous tenor lines well into his 80s.

“In an ideal chorus situation you will have a mixed blend of voices so you have a particular sound that makes us stand out as ‘that’s the sound of the Tonbridge Philharmonic’.”

Tonbridge Philharmonic Society

Formed in 1946, the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society is a vibrant part of musical life in the West Kent area.

Comprising of a mixed voice choir and orchestra, the Society works hard to provide exceptional performances, under the professional baton of Music Director Matthew Willis who works with both amateur and professional musicians across the UK and Europe.

Up to five concerts are performed each season, two are orchestral, plus a Charity Carol concert, in venues that include Tonbridge School Chapel and St Peter & St. Paul’s Parish Church in Tonbridge.

How to join

If you enjoy singing, are enthusiastic about making music, and are able to practice between rehearsals, come and try out Tonbridge Philharmonic Society. Newcomers are welcome to come to a rehearsal as a free taster session.

Rehearsals are at Tonbridge School on Wednesdays 7.45-9.30pm, September to July, contact Carol Wake on 01732 358458 or

If you are interested in joining the orchestra please contact the orchestral chairperson to arrange to come to one of our rehearsals.

Rehearsals are normally held at Tonbridge School Music School Recital Room, on Mondays 7.40-9.30pm, September to early July. Brass, Strings and Percussion players particularly welcome, contact Alison Aries on 01732 833750 or

Opening Concert of the 2016-17 Season

19 November 2016, 7.30 pm

Tonbridge School Chapel

Conductor: Matthew Willis

Tickets: £15 Adults, £14 Senior citizens over 60, £7 students

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