Thursday 12 August 2021

Nature's Songbook: Oxford Lieder Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary with its biggest festival yet and a return to live audiences

Sholto Kynoch, artistic director of the Oxford Lieder Festival
Sholto Kynoch, artistic director
of the Oxford Lieder Festival
This Autumn, Oxford Lieder Festival marks its return to events with live audiences in a big way as it celebrates the festival's 20th year with the biggest festival yet. 100 events, both in-person and live-streamed from 8 to 23 October 2021, which celebrate the festival's anniversary, the ability to return to full live performance and the sheer importance of the role the festival has come to play.

The theme of this year is technically Nature's Songbook, but the array of singers, pianists and composers is much more than that, it is a celebration of singing itself, the art of lieder in its many forms. Nature has inspired so many composers in so many different ways, that the programmes are remarkably varied. A vast range of music and poetry will gently steer the festival programme, including an exciting collaboration with Oxford Botanic Garden to mark their 400th anniversary. And there are other anniversaries too, there is Saint-Saens going beyond the usual animals, there is William Stenhammer (born 150 years ago) and his relationship to the Swedish landscape. There is a two-day celebration of Songs of America, exploring the remarkable richness of the American musical landscape, from Barber's Dover Beach and Hermit Songs to composers like Weill, Korngold and Dvorak working in the USA, a celebration of the African-American composer Harry T Burleigh, whose works helped shape the sound of American music, from Aaron Copland's settings of Emily Dickinson (with soprano Nadine Benjamin and pianist Nicole Panizza performing songs from their recent Emily Dickinson CD, see my review) to Stephen Sondheim sung by mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and tenor Nicky Spence.

Having recently interviewed tenor Ilker Arcayürek, I look forward to hearing him in recital with Simon Lepper. Another recent interview was with composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, whose song-cycle everything grows extravagantly, with words by Kate Wakeling, celebrates the 400th anniversary of the Oxford Botanic Garden and will be premiered by baritone Marcus Farnsworth and pianist Libby Burgess. 

Whilst list of performers at the festival is a veritable who's who from an opening concert with mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Julius Drake to a closing concert with Robin Tritschler and Roger Vignoles, there is also an array of young artist events, so that at that opening concert Dame Sarah is sharing the platform with Charles Cunliffe (bass-baritone) and Gus Tredwell (piano). Almost every Evening Concert at the festival has a 15-minute showcase spot performed by young artists and names I spotted include soprano Sian Dicker [the Countess in Opera Holland Park's Young Artist performance of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro this year, see my review], soprano Ellie Neate [Gretel in British Youth Opera's performance of Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel this year, see my review] and 2020 Ferrier Award Winner, soprano Jessica Cale.

There are Lunchtime Concerts, morning and afternoon talks and lecture-recitals, and Rush-Hour Concerts, with many days having a theme running through them. The wide array of events includes a discussion of birdsong in nature and music led by ornithologist John Krebs; representations of the ocean in song, led by Katy Hamilton with marine biologist and author Helen Scales; walking tours of the Oxford Botanic Garden; and an exploration of physician poets in song and the use of poetry by Edward Jenner to persuade people of the safety of vaccines in the early 19th century, led by Natasha Loges with Sir Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group

The Evening Concerts are doubled up, running at 5.30 pm and repeated at 8.15 pm, and there is a late-night series Song Futures which explores new avenues in song whether it be singing composers Tom Randle and Roderick Williams duetting together, a new song cycle by Charlotte Bray,  three women composers together - Judith Weir, Olga Neuwirth, Kate Whitley (a festival commission), the Hermes Experiment exploring new imaginary planets or mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, baritone Michael Craddock and pianist Alexander Soares bringing their Isolation Songbook [see my review].

There are 20 new works commissioned or co-commissioned by the festival, and other composers premiering in Oxford include Tom Coult, Laurence Crane, and Brett Dean.

Following the huge success of its fully ticketed online festival in 2020, all events will also be live-streamed. Prices have been held for several years and this year a flexible range of prices enable the festival to offer live-streamed events from as little as £3 and thousands of in-person tickets for £13 or less. There is also a generous range of concessionary rates offered to anyone booking multiple events, and online tickets for streamed events are available at £5 for under-35s.

Full details from the Festival website.

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