Spired and emotional: the Oxford Lieder Festival 2020

On paper, the Oxford Lieder festival (wholly online this year, for contagious reasons) ended about a month ago. But not for me. Right up to the last minute, I’ve been extracting the maximum value I possibly can from my catch-up pass, viewing as many concerts as possible before the on-demand video archive finally vanishes from the Digital Concert Hall and takes its place – like most live music used to! – solely in the memory.

Rest assured, I am desperate – like so many others – for the live experience as we knew it, pre-pandemic, to return. As a keen concertgoer, I’m craving that shared excitement, the unique connection a great gig generates between performers and audiences. And – ideally this would go without saying – I’m raging at the ignorance and incompetence that perpetuates this terrible situation, forced on everyone currently working in the arts.

But none of that should take away from the efforts so many in the industry are making to bring us music online. I genuinely hope that once we are back to normal, some of the discoveries and developments – innovations, even – made during this period will remain to complement the ‘old ways’.

I’m reluctant to talk about particular ‘pioneers’, because I think that term applies to every organisation or venue that has even tried to continue with remote performance this year. Each has its own set of challenges, leading to its own unique approach. This was a different kind of creativity. (Just to give two examples firmly in the centre of my radar – it felt typically ‘in character’ for Wigmore Hall to refine its existing model of modestly shot performances for social distancing, in the same way that it was ‘very’ ENO to dream up a drive-in, all-weather opera at Alexandra Palace.)

If I had both the viewing and writing time, I would want to cover almost everything. But here, I’m focusing on Oxford Lieder, for a couple of reasons. First, so much art song packed into so intense a period felt unmissable. Second, the festival team (headed by its artistic director, pianist Sholto Kynoch) seemed to decide at an early stage that, as this would almost certainly be an online event, they would give themselves over to that medium. In other words, in any aspect where the technology or circumstances presented an opportunity to do something unusual, something that perhaps couldn’t be fully achieved in a ‘real world’ scenario – they took it. (More on this later…)

Called ‘Connections Across Time: a Brief History of Song’, the festival was meticulously programmed and rich in overlapping themes. The title concept of song’s reach through the ages ran ‘horizontally’ through the week, with many artists choosing repertoire ranging across centuries for their set lists. This theme was elegantly reflected in the careful balance across ‘generations’ of singers, with relative newcomers dovetailing in among the more established names – often in the same concert, thanks to the Momentum initiative for bringing ‘support acts’ into recitals.

Each day, however, had its own ‘vertical’ theme to give additional focus: for example, one day centred around nature songs; another examined the interplay between sacred and secular subjects; another acknowledged the Beethoven anniversary. The headline evening concert each day was just part of a chain running from late morning to last thing, with the late-night slots (lower-key Proms-style) lending themselves to a slightly more esoteric selection of gigs.

The Voice of Santur

Some of the highlights of the entire festival for me lay amid these 10pm treasures. On a day devoted to the influence of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez on more modern art song, the evening ended with an astonishing performance by The Voice of Santur, an Iranian quartet (voice, violin, tabla and qanun – a stringed instrument resembling an autoharp played across the lap, but with a deeper, percussive edge to its sound) playing settings of Hafez in their own tradition arranged or composed by their founder, Peyman Heydarian (who sadly couldn’t be at the concert himself). It was a fascinating reminder that ‘our’ classical is not everybody’s classical (similar to watching the online African Concert Series broadcasts earlier in the year): to my Western ears, I can certainly find enough entry-points to help me dive in – the fact it was still ‘art song’, poetry set to music; and the familiarity of the violin – but the rhythmic language in the tabla and qanun brought a wholly new form of sensuality and even danceability.

Lotte Betts-Dean and Sean Shibe

One of the most tender and intimate performances of the whole festival closed out the event, with mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean and guitarist Sean Shibe performing ‘Songs of the Stars’, ranging through Dowland, Schubert, Britten and Debussy, among others. Seated in the Radcliffe Observatory, the night itself almost became their venue, and in the hushed aura, the duo performed with exquisite restraint and a natural rapport (nowhere more so than in the relaxed encore of ‘Blue Moon’). And speaking of time-spans, I felt this concert created a pleasing symmetry with the early-evening performance by James Gilchrist and Elizabeth Kenny right at the start of the week, in the Oak Room at Broughton Castle, with songs for voice and lute: a fascinating opportunity to compare approaches between ‘generations’ of performers and the effect of performing with period and modern instruments on songs both old and new.

Perhaps the most arresting late-night session closed out the ‘Future of Song’ day, which was built around the performances of three world premières. The Hermes Experiment are a quartet featuring soprano voice, harp, clarinet and double bass – and as a result, in the few years they’ve been around have become a driving force for contemporary classical music through commissioning most of their repertoire anew. Philip Venables’ ‘A Photograph’ demonstrated the potential of the band’s format for unpredictable, edge-of-the-seat storytelling. And from an art-song perspective, the fact that this is a Proper Group – plenty of noise available – but without a piano, means sinewy, snaking lines around the voice, instruments behaving as characters, and the space in the sound (particularly in the superb acoustic of Christ Church Cathedral) giving a high-wire electricity to the performance.

Looking at the late-night events alone helps to demonstrate the festival’s range. As much as I love the voice/piano format, I was excited and engaged by its insistence that art song comes to life in any arrangement. It didn’t stop there – there was the fascinating afternoon concert in Rycote Chapel from soprano Loré Lixenberg and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki, inspired by Lixenberg seeing Berlin street musicians playing Baroque repertoire; and violinist Jonathan Stone joining Kynoch to accompany mezzo Caitlin Hulcup in folk song and French mélodies.

It’s also worth noting the venues where the concerts took place. For me, this was one of the masterstrokes of committing to a totally online event: it allowed us to visit places where audiences would have been an impossibility, or at the minimum a logistical nightmare; bring music to spaces that would never normally be used for that purpose – and take advantage of what they had to offer. For example, a brilliant lunchtime concert of Bach and Britten allowed Ian Bostridge to move around Merton College Chapel depending on whether he was singing with the Oxford Bach Soloists or Saskia Giorgini at the piano. There were also the ‘impossible’ lectures, such as ‘The Story of the Rose’, showing how the development of the rose itself was closely tracked in song: visually, this took the form of a virtual tour of Oxford Botanic Garden’s roses, with Laura Tunbridge and the Garden’s Director Simon Hiscock contributing informative links between song performances by Lauren Lodge-Campbell and Dylan Perez.

These were somewhat surreal, but wholly successful, ways of presenting events that weren’t trying to replace the ‘real world’ version of the festival, because they could never be replicated in live circumstances.

The main evening concerts in the Holywell Music Room were arguably the most traditionally-presented sessions, but even then the direction felt intimate and adventurous – at times, the camera was sometimes placed where some of the audience would be (gliding along benches), or if not, where it would block their view. We have been spoilt for some time now with live streams and cinema relays giving us close-ups of facial expressions and movements that are hard to discern in, say, the opera house. Here, though, the intimacy was enhanced by the camera’s interest: it seemed to be a particularly dynamic presence, giving us multiple points of view, circling the performers and capitalising on their intensity.

Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper

I wondered if the performers, deprived of an audience right in front of them, channelled this energy instead. Certainly, we had a week of impassioned, committed performances. Kitty Whately’s programme dedicated to women poets (and including many female composers) reached extraordinary heights, in particular with the settings by Jonathan Dove, whose song cycles she has recorded with pianist Simon Lepper – not only demonstrating his intuitively sensitive touch here, but also truly Olympian skills as his own page-turner: knife-edge viewing. Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn devoted their concert to settings of Thomas Hardy, ensuring a modern, informative recital with some captivating contemporary pieces from Judith Weir and Ian Venables, unfamiliar selections (to me) from Arnold Bax and James Burton, and finally, the complete Finzi song cycle ‘Before and After Summer’. Williams’s affable presence served the programme well as the darker songs built in emotional impact.

On the day of premières, Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton gave a typically well-balanced programme of lieder, mélodies and English art song, featuring the new work ‘Six Songs of Melmoth’ by Cheryl Frances Hoad, with text by Sophie Rashbook (inspired by novels by Sarah Parry and, originally, Charles Maturin). This was a bold, dramatic cycle concerning a pact with the devil – the protagonist can only escape hell by transferring the curse to another – and the work ends (spoiler alert!) with the singer beckoning the audience to take the bait. In a ‘real’ live setting, Sampson would of course have drawn all eyes towards her for the climax and dragged us willingly to damnation. But in these unusual circumstances, I doubt there will have been many ‘televisual’ artistic or cultural moments this year with the chilling impact of what Sampson manages to do here:

Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton

As I mentioned at the start, the festival has taken care to imitate real live work, in one respect: the concerts are transient. Now gone after the catch-up interval, only some carefully selected excepts survive. As much as I could crave to revisit them, I sympathise with this – it allowed paying ticket-holders to share in an experience which then passes, never to be repeated, only relived.

But I think the legacy of this year’s Oxford Lieder festival – and others like it – could be significantly longer lasting. Most of us want to get back into venues to support artists in person, but some people can’t – for a whole host of reasons: age, infirmity, disability, financial situation, lack of travel options, work/life balance. A hybrid model combining fully-attended gigs with online-only events – all fairly priced – could perhaps lead to growth for some festivals and events, with more performers able to take part (and therefore build their earnings back up) and a much wider range of ‘attendees’ – some of whom would actually be there, but not all.

And the more join the enterprise, the better: Leeds Lieder managed to bring in audiences for its three autumn concerts, and it will be fascinating to see what form its spring festival takes. ENO reversed out of Ally Pally and returned to their home, the Coliseum, to perform Mozart’s Requiem: originally planned for a live audience, the second lockdown meant that instead, the performance was broadcast on BBC2, placing a new classical music event, seemingly out of nowhere, on weekend prime-time TV to a universally warm response. The awareness-raising potential from this point onwards is huge, and it could help not only place the arts industry in the forefront of the public’s consciousness, but throw much-needed lifelines to those working within it.

AA

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