Saturday 30 March 2024

Song belongs to us all and should be available to all: artistic director, Joseph Middleton on Leeds Lieder's boldest and most colourful festival yet

Discovering Lieder - Leeds Lieder 2023 (Photo: Ed Robinson)
Discovering Lieder - Leeds Lieder 2023 (Photo: Ed Robinson)

Leeds Lieder is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year whilst co-incidentally, artistic director Joseph Middleton also celebrates 10 years in post. This year's Leeds Lieder Festival, On Wings of Song, runs from 13 to 21 April 2024 with around 30 events at venues as diverse as the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds Conservatoire, Leeds Minster, Pudsey Town Hall, the Hyde Park Book Club and the Sikh Centre.

Joseph Middleton, artistic director of Leeds Lieder
Joseph Middleton, artistic director of Leeds Lieder

Joseph explains that quite a lot has changed over the years. The festival began as a biennial event, with a guest artistic director, and lasted two or three days. Early on, the festival moved to being annual and now is a nine-day event, but Leeds Lieder also now presents a year-round programme in collaboration with partners like Opera North and the Leeds Conservatoire. They have also grown their Young Artists Programme and for the 2024 festival, 20 young artists will be coming for a week to study with artists such as Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Felicity Lott, Graham Johnson, James Gilchrist, Anna Tilbrook and Benjamin Appl, as well as having new works written for them as part of their participation in the Composers & Poets Forum, performing brand new songs which will be the culmination of festival's creative song-writing project, 'A Leeds Songbook'. The festival's school work has expanded too, and this year they will be teaching around 1000 children about the joys of song, and the culmination of this is a concert in Pudsey Town Hall. And everything this year will be live-streamed; last year they reached a streaming audience of 200,000.

What is being performed has changed too, as the importance of the text has led to some interesting cultural exchanges. The festival commissions widely and they think about who to ask, to present diverse voices. This year, Tansy Davies has written a new song cycle, The Ice Core Sample Says, with poems by Nick Drake (from his collection, The Farewell Glacier), to be premiered by mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska and pianist Joseph Middleton at the Howard Assembly Room. The festival's second commission is being premiered in a rather more intriguing venue, the Sikh Centre. Soprano Nina Kanter, baritone Oscar Castellino and pianist Keval Shah will be premiering Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Punjabi Proverbs, in an evening that celebrates the cross-cultural art of British and Indian composers and poets, with Indian composers heard setting English poems, alongside English song settings of Indian poetry. The event is a collaboration with South Asian Arts UK.

New work does not just stop there. The Composers & Poets Forum brings together ten composers and ten poets to write works about Leeds, songs which are then sung by the Young Artists. These songs form the festival's ongoing 'A Leeds Songbook'. Joseph sees this project as a great tool for bringing in new audiences; stories about the people of Leeds, told in poems by the people of Leeds, set to music by composers brought to Leeds, firmly rooted in the locality.

The festival's growth is entirely down to the hard work of Joseph and the festival team. He admits that song can sometimes be seen as a 'hard sell', but for him, song is something so integral to us, part of the human condition and experience. We sing to children, children sing amongst themselves, and we sing at weddings and funerals; it should be simple to extend this to art song. There are great riches out there, and the subject matter has not changed significantly. Schubert's songs deal with longing, love and loss, human interaction is embedded deeply in song.

Bring & Sing at Leeds Minster - Leeds Lieder 2023 (Photo: Light Attitude)
Bring & Sing at Leeds Minster - Leeds Lieder 2023 (Photo: Light Attitude)

Joseph sees it as their job to introduce song to people so that they realise they will learn something about themselves. Song connects us with ourselves, past and future. The performers' role is to demystify what is an extraordinary art and show that it can be both profound and direct in its expression. Song belongs to us all and should be available to all. It is this that needs to be put across in the interpretation of the music, making the song clear, direct and personal, and in this way you build audiences.

For all the aura of celebration to this year's festival, the last couple of years have been more taxing than usual for them. Arts Council England declined funding for the 2023 festival and the festival ran a crowdfunding campaign, generously supported by the festival's artists. Joseph says that people were so kind, seeing the festival as enriching lives and being worth investing in. The festival managed to plug the financial gap last year and since then they have had fruitful conversations with Arts Council England, which has provided funding for the 2024 festival. But Joseph admits that they have also been lucky with their private philanthropy.

However, fundraising is necessary every year. A lot of their work brings no ticket income, such as the schools' concerts which are free to the schools. The Young Artist Programme is expensive to run, but it is also unlike anything anywhere else. In Leeds, the Young Artists have new works written for them, they work with living composers, though this all requires fundraising. Thanks to previous planning, the festival has built up reserves and thanks to Arts Council England's funding this year, Leeds Lieder has been able to mount the boldest and most colourful festival yet.

Joseph Middleton and James Newby  (Photo: LINDEN SHOTS)
Joseph Middleton and James Newby (Photo: LINDEN SHOTS)

Joseph is proud of the fact that they are going into parts of Leeds where they have not been before and where song is not heard frequently. There are pop-up events in bus stations and shopping centres, James Newby will be giving a recital in the popular bar, the Hyde Park Book Club, plus of course the event in the Sikh Centre. The Young Artists will be performing in Leeds Minster, and there is a film screening. And by visiting new venues, the festival hopes to both build new audiences and give existing audiences something new. What promises to be a packed and colourful week opens with a SongPath event at Kirkstall Abbey with an outdoor walking trail that blends music, nature and mental health. 

Joseph is most passionate about the festival's work in schools, something that audiences do not see (though you can catch a sample on YouTube). Joseph points out that so much of his musical education at his state school was extraordinary both in terms of its breadth and the fact that it was free or cheap. This does not happen now. If organisations like Leeds Lieder cannot do work in schools then schools struggle to deliver high-quality musical education, something that Joseph feels is criminal to take away from children. So, for Joseph and for the festival this is important, a reason to fundraise, and it will pay dividends in the years to come. 

Another aspect of the festival's work that Joseph highlights is the bringing of important artists to Leeds, to keep open the international dialogue that he feels is in danger of going the wrong way thanks to Brexit. For him, it is a good thing to bring artists who rarely perform in the UK, not just for the audience but so that the festival's Young Artists can learn from international artists and artists from other backgrounds. Joseph sees it as important too, that different cultures are represented in what is an intense week of cultural exchange.

Leeds Lieder Young Artists 2022 - Michael Rose and Hannah Morley
Leeds Lieder Young Artists 2022 - Michael Rose and Hannah Morley

Leeds Lieder was founded by a group of friends working at Opera North and whose work at Leeds Lieder was done on a voluntary basis. For this reason, a guest artistic director was brought in for each festival, to oversee the cultural offering. Joseph came on board when founder Jane Anthony tragically died, and he was able to do both roles so that he oversees the artistic offering but also understands what makes a festival work. He admits that before coming to Leeds, he did not have a big desire to run a festival, though artists are well-positioned to do such things. Thanks to his experience as a pianist and song recitalist, Joseph has built a picture of what works and what doesn't work in a festival, and who has something to say. So when selling a particular art form, it is helpful if you are aware of how remarkable that art form is. If you can convey that to others, then it gives strength to your programming. He finds it a lot of fun and an enormous amount of work!

Also, the cultural landscape is changing, the days of an artist turning up, performing and going away again, are disappearing and culture is now under attack. Joseph feels that it is important an artist stand up and say they firmly believe this art form can enrich life enormously. The problem with contemporary issues is often that cultures do not connect, and the arts are strongly placed to make a significant connection, he mentions artists like Dame Sarah Connolly and Alice Coote who use their voice for more than performing.

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