Saturday 27 April 2019

What we're missing: I chat to festival director Joseph Middleton about this year's Leeds Lieder

Joseph Middleton & James Newby performing at the 2019 Leeds Lieder Festival
Joseph Middleton & James Newby performing at the 2019 Leeds Lieder Festival
The 2019 Leeds Lieder Festival is on at the moment, running from 25 to 28 April 2019. For those of us unable to get to Leeds for this celebration of all things song, I recently met up with festival director Joseph Middleton to find out what we are missing.

Whilst song and lieder is often seen as a 'hard sell' by venues and concert promoters, Leeds Lieder seems to have found its niche. The box office receipts leapt 30% between the 2014 and 2015 festivals and they continue to grow, when I met Joseph a few days before the festival opened, box office had already broken last year's records.

Such rewards do not come without hard work and whilst Joseph talks about 'selling song', they do seem to have discovered a thirst for it in Leeds. This year's festival is four packed days with around seven events per day. That is a lot of song for the dedicated follower. And the festival is pulling international stars such as Angelika Kirchschlager, Fatma Said, Benjamin Appl and Miah Persson, who are rarely heard in Britain.

A big feature of the festival is that it has new works written and next year, the festival's 10th anniversary, will undoubtedly feature this strongly. This year's festival commission is from Mark Simpson, whose opera Pleasure was premiered by Leeds-based Opera North. Simpson's Verlaine settings are performed this evening (27 April 2019) by tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Malcolm Martineau, and are also being live streamed. Last year's live streams from the festival received hits from across the globe.

Leeds Lieder 2019's group of Young Artists celebrating with the 2019 Festival Guest of Honour, Angelika Kirchschlager, after her masterclass
Leeds Lieder 2019's group of Young Artists celebrating with the 2019 Festival Guest of Honour, Angelika Kirchschlager, after her masterclass

Another regular festival event is the composer and poets forum. This year 13 student composers have been paired up with 13 Leeds-based poets, enabling them to learn about writing song from the inside out. Over the course of six months each duo creates a new poem and from this a new song. The pieces are workshopped during the festival in front of a distinguished panel, and then premiered.

Leeds Lieder schools concert 2016
Leeds Lieder schools concert 2016
This year's schools' project will involve 1000 children from Primary and Secondary schools, with teams from the Festival going into the schools to teach the children songs by Schubert and by Faure; culminating in big presentations at Leeds Town Hall. Many of the children have never been to the town hall (a fantastic and fantastical Victorian interior) and they are able to go to events at the festival too. It introduces the children no just to song but to foreign languages as well. And evidently their appetite for song is livelier than you might expect, songs by Jonathan Dove and by Francis Poulenc go down well.

This year the festival is producing a series of short films, Lieder Lights, where distinguished singers talk about what Lieder means to them, with a focus on a particular song. They read the song's poem (in English) and then perform the song. So we have Carolyn Sampson on Purcell, Nicky Spence on Richard Strauss, Toby Spence on Britten and Ruby Hughes on Helen Grime. Once the series is complete, the festival plans to play them in schools to help introduce lieder to children. In fact, Joseph admits that quite what lieder is, is often a stumbling block and not just with children.

Further ahead, on 19 June 2019 there is a fund-raising gala at the Wigmore Hall with an impressive roster of singers (full details from the Wigmore Hall website). All the performers are giving their services, and the hall is not taking a fee, so all money raised goes to providing greater financial security for Leeds Lieder. The guest of honour at the event is the distinguished Dutch soprano Elly Ameling, and she is giving a master class on 18 June.

When Joseph took over the festival it was biennial, but it was difficult to build an audience with such a long gap between festivals. So now the festival is annual, and throughout the year there is an additional programme of monthly concerts in collaboration with Opera North, Leeds International Concert Season and the University of Leeds, with concerts from both rising stars and big names.

The festival takes place in the new hall at Leeds College of Music. Seating 360 people, Joseph sees it as ideal for recitals with a warm, live acoustic. Next door is a new roof-top bar which the festival is using for its Lieder Lounge.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • A sort of magic: John Nelson conducts Berlioz' La damnation de Faust in Strasbourg with Michael Spyres & Joyce DiDonato  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Schumann's Myrthen at Wigmore Hall with Sarah Connolly, Robin Tritschler, Anna Huntley and Malcolm Martineau (★★★) - concert review
  • Tony Cooper reports on this year’s BBC Proms, the world’s biggest classical-music festival - article
  • Remarkable revival: the Academy of Ancient Music presents Handel's Brockes Passion in a new critical edition (★★★★) - concert review
  • Education is key: I chat to conductor Nicholas Chalmers about Nevill Holt Opera & its new theatre - interview 
  • Commemoration & celebration: Sir James MacMillan conducts the BBC Singers at the St John's Smith Square Holy Week Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • The topsyturvydom effervesced: HMS Pinafore from Charles Court Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • A very human St John Passion: Solomon's Knot in Bach without conductor and from memory (★★★★) - concert review
  • Piano day: two venues, three pianists, two pianos - Sunday morning at Wigmore Hall and Sunday evening at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Barrie Kosky’s imaginative production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story returns to the Komische Oper, Berlin - music theatre review
  • Small-scale delights at the edge of Handel’s London: Chandos Anthems & Trio Sonatas at St Lawrence Whitchurch (★★★½)  - concert review
  • The stars shine in Verdi's La forza del destino at Covent Garden despite a rather disappointing production (★★★½) - opera review
  • 'Costly Canaries': Mr Handel's Search for Super-Stars at the London Handel Festival (★★★½)  - concert review
  • In search of Youkali: the life & songs of Kurt Weill at Pizza Express Live  - concert review
  • Home

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