Interview: CUMS CO Conductor Toby Hession

Toby Hession

Toby Hession

Toby Hession tells us about his passion for conducting, Dvorak’s mysterious Noon Witch and tackling Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in preparation for CUMS Concert Orchestra’s performance on Thursday 24 November

1. Tell us about your musical background. What inspired you to start conducting?

Conducting, or at least directing, has always been of interest to me. My father has enjoyed a career as a Musical Director in theatre, and so I have always observed him and seen what he does – and perhaps some of my earliest ‘conducting’ experiences came from this too, on occasions where I’d assist him or ‘lend a hand’. The first time I conducted formally, though, was during my time at Chetham’s School of Music. I studied piano and composition there, and it was through volunteering to conduct one of my own pieces (for string orchestra) in a concert that I first realised it was something I loved. As well as regularly conducting various ensembles in Composers’ Concerts at Chetham’s (from sextets through to full orchestral forces), I also co-founded and directed a choir there in my final year, with a good friend who now studies at Trinity College. It was in this way that I managed to open myself to Choral direction too, and getting to know the fundamental differences between two very different crafts so early on was thoroughly worthwhile. It was also incredibly enriching to observe the array of professional conductors that would come in to work with the Symphony Orchestra at Chetham’s, both in rehearsal and performance. Many of them offered coaching and mentorship to students who were interested, and some of the things I learned in those sessions stick with me as if it were only yesterday.

2. What have you enjoyed about working with CUMS Concert Orchestra?

Even in the space of one term, working with CUMS CO has proved to be both one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and also one of the toughest learning curves. I suppose two aspects of this stand out to me above all. Firstly, it is fanstastic to have an orchestra at my fingertips for a whole year. My previous conducting experiences have mostly involved putting pieces together very quickly, usually on the day of the concert, and hoping that everyone coasts through (composers’ concerts often pose some enormous technical challenges!). To be able to work with this group week in, week out and hear them develop as an ensemble is truly heart-warming. Yet it is that that has proved to be the challenge too – I’m not used to having so much time to work with! I think more importantly though, CUMS CO provides an opportunity to share great music with instrumentalists from all backgrounds, and with all intentions. Some of the players are music students, with serious ambitions to build a career on their playing – others play for the sheer enjoyment of doing so, and may not ever study the works beyond the rehearsal room. And, at the end of the day, looking up and seeing a whole group of people simply enjoying the music they are playing is the most magical thing of all.

3. What are you most looking forward to about your concert on the 24th November?

I most look forward to the challenge of getting through the whole concert in one go! It’s a demanding programme for the players and the conductor in terms of stamina, and of course there is no chance to stop and go back over something in the performance! It has to be perfect first time. All of the works demand an incredible amount of energy if they are to be shown off to their full potential – so it will be interesting to see how everybody decides to pace themselves on the day!

4. What’s the story behind The Noon Witch and how is it portrayed in the music?

Dvorak tells the story of a mother who warns her son that if he continues to misbehave, the Noon Witch will appear to take him away. The son does not behave, and sure enough, as the clock strikes twelve, the Witch appears. The Witch begins to chase the mother and her son, but during the mother’s efforts to protect her child, she accidentally smothers him to death. The piece ends as the father arrives home, only to discover the dead body of his son and the passed out body of his wife. Dvorak is one of the most imaginative and colourful orchestrators ever to have lived, and it is a pity that this piece is does not enjoy more frequent performance. The playful wind colours at the beginning set a pastoral secene, and depict the mischievous child. The impassioned pleas of the mother to spare her son are set as brilliantly soaring string lines, whilst the Witch is characterised by a dark, ominous bass clarinet solo. The variety of texture in the piece helps to articulate the narrative, and makes it one of Dvorak’s most fascinating works.

5. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most iconic pieces of classical music ever composed. How have you approached it? What challenges does it bring?

Thinking about the status of Beethoven’s Fifth for too long could easily dissuade one from wanting to touch it at all! Of course, it is revered by analysts and academics as much as it is by conductors and orchestras, but I was keen to avoid being drawn into the slightly sacrosanct nature of the discussions that surround it. I found that the best way to approach it was to see it as any other piece of music that I might learn to play or conduct – quite simply, by doing it as I want to do it. I have based my interpretation quite closely on that of Carlos Kleiber, who I believe oversaw the best performance of this work that I have heard. However, I believe I have also found many original things to say through Beethoven’s music. The closer one looks at the score, the more one realises how tightly the whole piece is constructed using just basic arithmetic units. It is tempting to play with the tempo and the dynamics to find a some new level of drama, but Beethoven writes with an extraordinary attention to detail and no histrionics. Observing his markings to the highest degree possible has actually produced, for my taste, a much more thrilling account.

6. What else are you looking forward to in the CUMS 2016-17 season?

I am looking forward, of course, to the future CUMS CO events very much, and particularly to tackling Schubert’s charming Sixth Symphony next term. That said, I am looking forward tremendously to seeing John Tothill conduct Tchaikovky’s Fourth Symphony with the CUMS Symphony Orchestra. The opportunties afforded to the conducting laureates through CUMS are really invaluable, and it’s fantastic for us to be able to support one another, and learn from our closest peers. On top of that, I am hugely excited to hear Jamie Phillips’ performance of Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklarung – this was one of the first orchestral scores I ever bought for myself, and I remember watching the Symphony Orchestra at Chetham’s rehearse it for hours on end. I was fascinated by the effortlessness of Strauss’ writing, and how naturally the music seemed to traverse the space between conductor and orchestra, and ultimately, listener. This piece brings back particularly fond memories of my time at school there.


 Toby conducts an exciting programme of Bruckner, Dvorak and Beethoven this Thursday at 8pm in West Road Concert Hall – book your tickets online here!

Interview: CUMS Symphony Chorus Student President, Eli Morris

Ahead of CUMS Symphony Chorus’s first concert of the 2016-17 Season this coming Sunday, Eli Morris gives some insight into her role as Chorus Student President…

Eli Morris

Eli Morris

1. Tell us about your musical background. Have you always been fond of singing?

I’ve always loved singing, and my family and friends have long put up with me singing to myself wherever I go (my friend Michelle and I do a mean rendition of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ from the Lion King, but that’s another story…) I’ve had singing and piano lessons since a young age, and performed in various musical theatre shows, as well as the school choir and chamber choir. I was lucky enough to sing in St Pauls and Southwark Cathedral as part of the chamber choir, which were both absolutely unforgettable experiences.

2. What attracted you to the CUMS Symphony Chorus?

I think Cambridge life can get a bit stressful for a student sometimes, and it’s so important to be part of something for a couple of hours a week where you can just completely forget about that essay you need to write or the lab report that you haven’t started yet and just do something that makes you happy. I tried a couple of other choirs before joining, and the Chorus is, in my opinion, such a high quality choir, and the pieces we do are really beautiful, so it seemed like the obvious choice. I also like the fact we’re such a big choir; we can produce a really amazing sound and pull off more epic pieces.

3. Do you sing in other ensembles in Cambridge?

I’ve just started a choir in Emmanuel actually, which is on Monday nights and we do sing very different songs to those we’re doing in the Chorus; we’re doing Coldplay and Christmas Carols this term. I really like the contrast between that and Mozart!

4. What has been your favourite performance with CUMS Symphony Chorus?

We sang Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in May Week last year with the Symphony Orchestra, which has some really fun passages, and the soloists were incredible.

5. What does your role as CUMS Symphony Chorus Student President involve?

I help manage the social media for the Chorus, and take minutes at meetings. I also helped out at the Freshers’ Fair and helping deal with the audition process for the students joining the Chorus.

6. CUMS Symphony Chorus’s first concert of the year features Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Have you enjoyed working on this piece? What challenges does it bring?

I really love this piece, although I must admit some parts of it are very intricate and tricky (I am slightly terrified of Osanna). I particularly like the passages where we split into a first and second choir; the music is so detailed but also epic and in-your-face. There’s so much going on so it’s amazing to listen to!

7. What are you most looking forward to about the 2016-17 season?

On the 21st January the students in the Chorus are combining with some of the college choirs around Cambridge and singing Mahler Symphony No 3 in King’s College Chapel, which should be amazing!


CUMS Symphony Chorus are performing Mozart’s Mass in C minor this Sunday at West Road Concert Hall. The concert will also feature Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto, performed by Toby Hession. Tickets are selling fast, so book yours online today!


Registered Charity No. 1149534

Cambridge University Musical Society
West Road Concert Hall
11 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP
Principal Guest Conductor
Sir Roger Norrington CBE
CUMS Conductor Laureate
Stephen Cleobury CBE
Director, Cambridge University Chamber Choir
Martin Ennis
Artistic Advisor
Sian Edwards
Associate Directors, Cambridge University Chamber Choir
David Lowe, Nicholas Mulroy