Thursday, 19 September 2019

Mysterious hauntings & magical happenings - Tales of the Beyond at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Tales of the Beyond - Oxford Lieder Festival
This year's Oxford Lieder Festival, which runs from 11 to 26 October 2019, takes as its theme Tales of the Beyond: Magic, Myths and Mortals, exploring everything from Nordic myth to mysterious hauntings and magical happenings, and even a Day of the Dead, through the art of song.

The festival's artistic director and founder, Sholto Kynoch, enjoys the theme because it enables the festival to explore and enjoy song as story telling and exciting narrative, and not just be 'love songs and nature'. In fact, Sholto's original idea for the theme was simply Death, and he points out that this would not be totally gloomy and there is plenty of 'exciting and fun stuff' on the theme, but ultimately it was rather too restricting and morphed into the Tales of the Beyond.

Part of the appeal of such a fun and exciting theme is to get more people involved in song, whether it be through the festival's education events or coming to concerts. Having a theme like this gives the festival an opportunity to present world class song in a way which makes people see the art form in a different light.

So far, the comments have been good and the advanced ticket sales are good.

The festival's opening concert, which features soprano Camilla Tilling and bass-baritone Neal Davies with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Jac van Steen includes orchestral songs by Schubert (with orchestrations by Berlioz, Brahms and Reger) and Grieg. Rather excitingly, this is the festival's first full symphony orchestra concert and many of the songs in it will indeed be telling strange tales! But Sholto points out that the whole opening weekend is jam-packed with good things, including both baritone Stéphane Degout and tenor Christoph Prégardien coming to the festival for the first time, not to mention the two study days on Carl Loewe and Clara Schumann.

Sholto Kynoch
Sholto Kynoch
Artistic Director of the Oxford Lieder Festival
The Clara Schumann study day will of course look at her songs, but will also seek to place her in her wider cultural significance. Carl Loewe's ballads are, of course, very central to the festival's theme but the study day is aiming to show that Loewe's did other things. Sholto feels that the very best of Loewe's work really does stand up to comparison with other great song composer. Singers tend to be drawn to the ballads and the other songs are overlook even though some are stunning. In fact Loewe's wrote over 500 songs, so even if he has a low hit rate that is quite a few good songs. He was born the year before Schubert and outlived him by 40 years!

The festival's theme is strongest in the first week, with Ghost-themed and Fairytale-theme days, a Day of the Dead (including Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death with baritone Thomas Oliemans and pianist Malcolm Martineau) and A night at the museum, with a mixture of song and talks in the Ashmolean Museum. The second week is slightly less themed, but has some great artists in great songs, with baritone Roderick Williams in Schubert song cycles in English, and first festival visits from sopranos Carolyn Sampson (in Haydn, Schoenberg, Mahler, Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis and Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs), and Dorothea Röschmann (in Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and Wagner).

There are plenty of family and interactive concerts, with a big family concert with SongSpiel which will feature songs by Cheryl Frances-Hoad with hand puppets, which Sholto feels is an interesting and dynamic way to get children and adults enjoying song.

There are events outside of Oxford too. SongSpiel will be taking their programme to schools in Wallingford and Witney, whilst mezzo-soprano Maria Forsström and pianist Matti Hirvonen will be performing their Ghost-themed programme of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov, Britten and Butterworth to Wallingford and Witney. Again this will be aiming to take the festival to a wider audience, and this is something the festival hopes to develop.

Whilst the two weeks of the festival are at the heart of what Oxford Lieder does, the centre-piece of its work, Sholto feels that they have the capacity to do more. Though they have a dedicated and large audience, more widely song is a neglected art form. It shouldn't be. Sholto points out that the combination of words and music should make song more accessible. So the festival is keen to take things further afield with more year-round events and platforms for young singers.

Next year there will be a Spring Song festival, 28 March to 4 April 2020 which will include the festival's Mastercourse for young singers. It was felt that the Mastercourse was getting lost in the main festival, so the Spring Song festival will consist of masterclasses during the day and concerts in the evening. There is also a new song series at Fairlight Hall near Hastings, and the festival's series of concerts at Wolfson College, Oxford continues. There are also developing a partnership with the Barber Institute in Birmingham. Sholto sees all these initiatives as a way of championing the genre all year round.

Education is an important part of the theme, students and young professionals can participate in the masterclasses of the Mastercourse, and the Spring Song Festival also has masterclasses for adult amateurs.  Local schools work with the festival and the Ashmolean Museum in the run up to the festival on an in-depth creative project which runs over five-weeks where the children write their own song cycle and then perform it. The festival aims to triple the scope of this project next year, and there are other things in the pipeline. Essentially the festival tries to look to see who hasn't got an access point to be involved.

Though the festival has done single composer-themed festivals (most notably in 2014 when they performed Schubert's complete songs over three weeks), for the next three years at least they will be choosing more general themes rather than single composers. Sholto feels that this allows more flexibility and is less dogmatic, and is popular both with artists and audiences. Also, it means that Sholto is not always having to ask artists to sing this or that song! And themes mean that the festival can draw on the academics in Oxford for talks and study events which relate to the theme. This year, for instance, they have events on the Representation of Death in France, and Faust in Music, as well as the composer study days.  By providing these cross links, Sholto feels that they can help people to see things afresh.

Sholto does not want the festival to be in a bubble, but to make links and bring out underlying themes. Oxford has the new Schwarzman Centre to look forward to, which will bring all the humanities onto one site and thus aid interactions between the different branches, something that can only be helpful to the festival. And the centre will have a new concert hall!

For the first time, this year, the festival as an associate composer. This is Cheryl Frances-Hoad and she will be in place for three years. As well as focusing on her music, the festival has commissioned a work from Cheryl for each year, a single substantial song this year, a song cycle next year and a substantial song cycle for 2021 which is the festival's 20th anniversary. This year, there is a chance to hear her songs, her piano music and her choral music, including her Beowulf settings on the first day of the festival. And as well as her music, she is involved in talks and more over the three years.

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