She might not thank me for doing so, but on International Women’s Day it seems fitting to pay tribute to our Head of Department, conductor Susan Wanless, who has been at the helm of extra-curricular music at the University for a very long time. A positive role model for female musicians, Sue’s career is a great example of how gender should be no barrier to succeeding in musical life and in areas of cultural responsibility and leadership, including wielding a baton in front of the massed ranks of assembled performers in the glare of the public eye.
Sue’s tireless championing of music as part of the life of the University includes conducting the University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra each year, including the epic annual Colyer-Fergusson concert in Canterbury Cathedral, as well as a variety of other ensembles. From a humble fifty members originally rehearsing in the Senate Building, the University Chorus has grown to over two hundred students, staff, alumni and members of the local community, now able to rehearse and perform in the magnificent Colyer-Fergusson Hall, itself a testament to the value the University places both on music-making and Sue’s advocacy for cementing it into life at Kent.
Under her leadership, music is now a flourishing part of the University; over four hundred students and staff are involved each academic year, with over fifty musical events taking place in Colyer-Fergusson – both departmental concerts as well as visiting ensembles and performers – throughout the course of the year. The Music department regularly commission new music written especially for its forces to perform – witness this Saturday’s premiere of an orchestral work by Professor of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Kent-based composer Matthew King. When not busy on campus, she can be found on the panel of judges for the Canterbury International Festival’s annual music performance competition. (And, as many of us know, also on the golf course…!)
Sue was also heavily involved in the design and consultation process behind the creation of the Colyer-Fergusson Building, travelling up to London to confer with architects, designers and sound engineers at the point that crucial decisions were being made. Thanks to the generous bequest from the Colyer-Fergusson Charitable Trust, chaired at the time by the Honourable Jonathan Monckton, and since opening its doors in December 2012, Colyer-Fergusson has greatly enhanced the possibilities for making music at Kent, and continues to flourish under Sue’s watchful eye. Each year, a host of students graduates from the University with fond memories of having performed in the Nave of the Cathedral, the Crypt, Colyer-Fergusson Hall, churches around the county, and with friendships forged in the white-heat of rehearsing and performing alongside their academic studies; all facilitated by the Music department and Sue’s leadership. Who can forget those summer performances in Eliot Dining Hall, or Chorus rehearsals in the Grimond Building in the Era Before Colyer-Fergusson…Depending on the era in which students passed through the University, they might have been involved in the summer opera projects, in which Sue helmed fully-staged productions of works such as La Traviata, The Magic Flute and Tosca with professional soloists; they might have performed on one of the stages that popped up around campus during ArtsFest, which itself transformed into the current annual music festival celebrating the end of the academic year that is Summer Music Week.
Here’s to Sue, and to women musicians who are making such an impact on musical life in their communities everywhere!