An Interview with Anthony Brown

After the wild success of the Fulltone Festival in Devizes in August and the recent spectacular ‘A Classical Explosion, in Concert’ in Marlborough College Chapel (which earned The Fulltone Orchestra a standing ovation), I thought it was time to ask Anthony Brown, Conductor and Musical Director (and husband, business, and musical partner of the dynamic Jemma Brown), a few questions about where he has come from musically, what makes him tick, and where he intends to go from here.

How did you get here, Tone? Give us a quick musical CV then.

Music is in my blood. My great grandfather was a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral for many years and sang in the choir there.  When I was 7 I also joined the local church choir and was Head Chorister at 11 or 12.  I love church music, it’s such a good grounding in music.  Around this time I started studying Flute. I got to my Grade 8 within a few years and then went on to do a Recital Certificate with Trinity College.  Throughout my school years I was in school orchestras and wind bands and I also travelled Europe with the Cotswold Flute Choir. I studied A level music which I absolutely loved and still remember these lessons with Richard Stillman, the only other student in the class – ha!

When I was 18 I started teaching flute and conducted the youth version of the Flute Choir for a few months before the real world of work took over.

My biggest life regret is choosing Accountancy over Music.

I kept up my singing though, and sang in various groups, especially Gilbert & Sullivan although my first principal role was in Sweeney Todd in Cheltenham as Tobias.  Thereafter I started to do many lead roles, usually romantic tenor leads.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Devizes and helped Jem relaunch TITCO (The Invitation Theatre Company) that I started turning my hand to musical direction.  Since then I’ve musically directed Pirates of Penzance, The Hired Man, Into the Woods, War of the Worlds and many other concerts.

What happened that resulted in you starting The Fulltone Orchestra?

I’d been MDing with TITCO for a little while and literally woke up one morning and said to Jem, ‘I want to start an orchestra’. She said ‘OK!’, and the FTO was born!

I plan ahead – I knew I wanted to do Movies first, followed by something with singers, and then something serious. I love all types of music (well, except very heavy metal!) so I’ve set up the FTO so I can do all kinds of genres and nothing is off limits.

Who taught you to conduct and musically direct a large orchestra, Tone?

I’m totally self-taught! I rely on a few people for advice and guidance but most of the time I’m just finding my way – and that’s exciting as well as terrifying! If I were to pick out one person who has influenced me though it would have to be Captain Neil Skipper, Director of Music, Band of the Irish Guards, who is a good friend and mentor and an amazing source of support. He’s taught me so much that I’ve even named one of my orchestral manoeuvres ‘The Skipper Move’!

How many musicians did you have in the orchestra at Marlborough College Chapel?

There were 62 in Marlborough, and there will be 65 in Bath Abbey on November 4th.

How do you decide who plays in which gig – what’s the selection process?

I put a shout out in our Facebook Group of 150 members and ask who’s available and can they attend the rehearsals; I then appoint and recruit for any gaps.  It keeps things fresh and also means that people don’t have to commit to every concert.

How do you select the pieces – why did you choose what you chose for the Marlborough concert?

I’m a walking jukebox! I have so many tunes in my head and I’m constantly listening to music.  As a rule I play what I love to listen to, there’s no point in doing something you don’t like – the passion won’t transfer to the audience. But it’s the audience I think of – what would they like to hear and what goes well with each piece of music.  I knew I wanted to start with the Festive Overture and end with 1812 so I built the programme around that.  I always include a couple of pieces that we’ve just done as well as it builds the repertoire and makes our short rehearsal time easier.

What were you thrilled or not thrilled with in Marlborough?

The resonance in the Chapel is difficult to manage and after the afternoon rehearsal I had to cut the Sabre Dance because of it and reduce the tempo down a bit on some numbers.  Starting a concert nervous isn’t great but we came through it together by working really hard and listening to each other.  Mambo was great fun! And the Adagio was spectacular.

How do you feel the orchestra has progressed since it started in 2017?

We have progressed so much, and it’s with the Strings that you see it the most. We have players coming now from London, Cardiff, and Brighton to play.  They wouldn’t keep coming back if they didn’t rate the experience.  So my string section is bigger – and size really does matter – but also the quality of the players is top rate.  I’ve managed to retain a lot of the good local musicians too, so it really does feel like everybody is coming on a journey with me.

How do you feel about the mix of popular and serious music? Can the orchestra be all things to all men or does the fun stuff take away from the serious stuff? Do people believe that an orchestra who can bang out Born Slippy in the middle of a field (sorry, The Green!) can be up there with old established orchestras? Are you like, ‘Take it or leave it’ when it comes to the FTO?

Music is music – none of us like the same records, we don’t all listen to the same radio station or go to the same concerts. The FTO can totally deliver different kinds of music and it’s important to me that we can be respected for more serious classical music as well as the best of popular music. I do want us to be taken seriously as a symphony orchestra.

What’s the vision, Tone? Where do you want the orchestra to go from here?

It’s all about momentum and rebuilding that up again after losing it during lockdown. The FTO will start stretching its legs to new places further afield and playing to new audiences.  Big plans for the next few years.

And lastly, I’ve often wondered – what does conducting an orchestra feel like?

Music is all about emotion and that’s what I love! The first time I stood up to conduct Star Wars in our first concert I do not remember turning the pages, it was surreal, but awesome – I moved my hands and the magic happened!

The FTO don’t rehearse every week, we have a short period of rehearsals before a concert, sometimes only two rehearsals and that creates an energy.  I rely on good talented musicians who can turn up and play – my job then becomes one of adding the flare, the dynamics and drawing out of the orchestra the right sound.

I’m like a kid with the best toy ever!

You can see the amazing Anthony Brown and The Fulltone Orchestra in ‘A Classical Explosion, in Concert’ at Bath Abbey on Thursday 4th November 2021, and follow them for more exciting events (including another unmissable Fulltone Festival!) in 2022 and beyond…

Many thanks to Tone for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions.

Interview and image of Anthony Brown at Marlborough College Chapel @ Gail Foster 2021