After helping thousands of others to live their musical dream, I think Phil Toms deserves a bit of music ‘me’ time.

The head of schools for digital media, music and performing arts at degree level at Colchester Institute is riding high on the crest of a creative wave with a number of projects on the go including a second outing for his Island project.

Written to coincide with the anniversary of the First World War, Island is an original work for narrator, child and adult soloists, choir and orchestra which tells a story of conflict which is resolved, in the end, through music.

Phil says: “The concept of Island started back in June 2013 at conductor Steve Bingham’s 50th birthday concert in Cambridge. Renowned folk singer Jeremy Harmer was introducing me to his crazy idea of a narrated orchestral work for children - rather like Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf but with children actively engaged in the performance.

“Our pitch was simple - West Side Story meets Peter and the Wolf, on an Island with a dog.”

Island was commissioned and funded by Ely Sinfonia and the Arts Council with additional funding by the Colchester Institute Scholarly Research Panel and was first performed in March 2015 at Ely Cathedral.

Phil says: “The conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim once said when two opposing sides make music together, they can’t be at war with each other, and that really inspired Jeremy and I.

Gazette: Performance of the Island at Ely Cathedral

“Jeremy came up with the storyline of a boy and a girl at different ends of an island, and that in the middle of the island was this lake, which when water became scarce the two sides fight over.

“He spent a lot of time in Aleppo and was moved to write songs about the kind of things he saw like children burning tyres to put off the attacking soldiers.

“For the Ely performance we had nine schools involved, more than 150 young people, as well as a community choir made-up of adults. It was a really special moment for me, mainly because it was nice to be just the composer of a piece rather than anything else.”

Although he couldn’t help stretching his creative muscles in another different direction.

Phil adds: “As a fan of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, I designed a map to engage children’s imaginations beyond the story, which would compliment a number of extra-curricular opportunities. The map was designed to try and reflect the actual social and industrial development of a fictitious island with a few key names drawn from the participants for added effect.”

Now Island is being performed again this time as part of the Sounds of Essex Youth Music and Wellbeing Festival.

The main event takes place in Chelmsford’s Central Park from 10am to 6pm on June 30, but Island is taking place at the Cathedral later in the evening from 7pm.

“Peter Lovell of Essex Music Services came to see it in Ely and really enjoyed it,” Phil says, “so now I’m delighted it’s being done again, this time in my home county.”

Born and brought up in Chelmsford, after graduating from York University, Phil began his career in teaching in Shenfield. He joined the Colchester Institute in 2006.

As well as Island, Phil is just coming to the end of his first Tubular Bells tour, which I’m proud to say I played a very little part in.

That’s because when Phil was putting on a show for the Mercury Theatre a couple of years, I suggested it might be something other people would pay good money to see.

Turns out I was right.

Gazette: Phil Toms, Steve Bingham and Jeremy Harmer

Tubular Bells Live began when Phil decided to transcribe the legendary album note for note after Mike Oldfield released a 16 multi-track version which separated every instrument.

“It was for a re-mixing competition,” he explains, “but because I have perfect pitch and can listen to a note and know exactly what it is, it enabled me to transcribe the various parts. With the renewed interest because of the Olympics there were various re-issues of stereo surround sound versions and some of his older demos which allowed me to deconstruct the whole thing.

“There was no real reason to doing it, I just wanted to see how the album worked, what went into it and how the various parts were put together. I wanted to get into the nitty gritty and pull the thing apart, I suppose a bit like a mechanic might do to an engine.”

It took Phil two years off and on in which time he had met musician Jay Stapely, who had worked with Mike Oldfield, and the seeds of a concert had started sprouting.

That took place in November 2015, over two nights in the Swinburne Hall at Colchester Institute, which promptly sold out nine months in advance.

“We had people coming from all over the world,” Phil says. “Germany, Brazil, Canada and America as well as a huge local crowd as well. It was just so incredibly popular. As soon as I posted the concert notice on-line it went crazy.”

And it’s been the same with Phil’s mini regional tour of six dates with shows in Milton Keynes, Chelmsford and Bury St Edmunds.

“It’s been great,” he explains. “We weren’t quite sure how it would go but we were hopeful the interest would be there and thankfully it has. We pretty much sold out most venues and actually sold out Milton Keynes.

“I would love to tour it further but the commitment for something like that is huge so we’ll just have to see.”

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