Interview with Toby Holden

Manchester Universities String Society burst onto the city's music scene earlier this year with a captivating blend of innovative programming and fierce professionalism that would rival ensembles many years its senior. We caught up with the man behind the MUSS, violist Toby Holden, to learn what it takes to build an orchestra from scratch and why traditional classical concerts can still pack a punch.


You're now in your final year studying Music at Manchester. What first got you interested in music and what persuaded you to study it at university?

Studying music was a late decision for me. People often say that teachers can make or break it, and that’s so true - I was lucky enough to have some excellent teachers from secondary school through to sixth form who inspired me to reconsider my subject choices halfway through sixth form and take the music course in one year. Fortunately I ended up at Manchester, which really has been the best possible outcome for me.

How did you decide that Manchester was the place to study?

Manchester has a vibrancy to it that I've not experienced elsewhere. The University is right across the road from the Royal Northern College of Music, and there is so much going on musically in both places. Some of the highlights have been performing in the Whitworth Hall for concerts and some amazing University events, particularly the recent installation of the Chancellor Lemn Sissay. And Manchester itself is host to a number of professional orchestras. I love the Victorian architecture that makes up the city too – it’s beautiful!

Whitworth Hall

What was the motivation behind the founding of MUSS?

Manchester Universities String Society was set up by myself and Duncan Gallagher last year because we thought there was something that could be added that was not already available in the music making at the University. This was to provide high quality performance opportunities to aspiring professional string players in Manchester particularly in the string orchestra repertoire. Though the two buildings are virtually next door, we were both surprised at the lack of integration between UoM and RNCM students, and we thought that students would welcome the chance to work together - hence MUSS was born!

What sets it apart from the rest of the student music-making going on in Manchester?

I think that MUSS offers unique programmes and performance opportunities to students (and audiences). For the players, we put so much work into the organisation of these concerts to ensure that there is no faff, just music making for them; we want it to be a professional as it can possibly be. Another thing that sets MUSS apart is the dynamic nature of the ensemble itself - we operate on a project basis with a short/intensive rehearsal schedule which allows us to involve as many different performers as possible and replicates a professional environment. We also collaborate with fantastic soloists and conductors that many of our performers, prior to MUSS, won’t have been able to work with.

Did you experience any difficulty getting the project off the ground?

Absolutely, running MUSS is not easy! Whether it’s securing rehearsal space and concert venues, publicising, avoiding clashes with university and college schedules etc, it takes up a lot of my time. That said, I think that the hard work is really starting to pay off – the audience response to our projects has been fantastic, and more and more students are wanting to be involved with MUSS’ projects.

What's next in the pipeline for MUSS?

We’re launching our 2015/16 season this December with two concerts on the same weekend. On Friday 11th December we’re performing Brandenburg 3 and Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major with Oliver Farrant at the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall. Two days later we’re performing Janacek’s Idyll, Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet (for string orchestra), and an arrangement that I did over summer of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata in the beautiful Whitworth Art Gallery.

In 2016 we’re the resident ensemble for part of the RNCM February conducting masterclasses, culminating in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade on the 8th February at the RNCM.

So far MUSS has tended to perform works situated quite securely within the Western classical canon. Do you think there is a need for more adventurous programming in future?

I think that there is no issue with presenting traditional works, particularly if they are presented in innovative ways. Programmers can adapt the traditional format to increase its impact and artistic raison d'être by finding new possibilities in existing repertoire, perhaps through interesting combinations of works, or themes in the choices of concert programmes.

For example in our first concert before Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, we had a chamber choir perform Tallis’ 'Why Fum’th in Fight' unannounced from the organ loft - we hadn’t even told the orchestra! The audience and players loved that. We also performed a stunning contemporary work by Luke Mather, composed especially to precede Tippett's Double Concerto for Orchestra. Mather’s piece ‘Third Tune’ made use of material from both the Tippett and Tallis, presenting it in such a way that it sounded completely new, though oddly familiar.

What does the future hold for you personally? Would you consider managing music ensembles as a career?

I’m applying for postgrad performance on viola at Birmingham Conservatoire. Managing ensembles is definitely a serious possibility for me, as part of a portfolio career I hope. Despite all the frustrations of running an ensemble and organising concerts, I cannot overstate how rewarding it is to put on a high standard concert enjoyed by players and audience alike.

Finally, what are you listening to at the moment? Anything you could recommend to the listeners back home?

Janacek’s Idyll for Strings. Seriously – it’s such a beautiful piece and it deserves to be better known! Of course, you can hear it for yourself when MUSS performs at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Sunday 13th December 3pm.