Composers, singers and poets collaborate at Leeds Lieder festival

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The Leeds Lieder festival celebrates the performance and composition of song and of poetry in many languages – and a well-established event, the Composers and Poets Forum and Showcase, once again proved its popularity at this year's festival. A capacity audience in the Recital Room of Leeds College of Music on Saturday clapped enthusiastically at every opportunity as 10 world premieres of new art songs were performed, the culmination of months of collaborative work between local poets and student composers from national conservatoires and northern universities.

In the context of a classical festival in which most of the words tend to be provided by dead poets, it is refreshing, and absolutely necessary, to give opportunities for young, creative musical minds to come together with authors of texts who are still living, breathing and possibly standing anxiously by the piano, which is the instrument prescribed in the rules. The forum, lasting practically all day, gave an opportunity for the student singers and composers, together with the poets, to run through the finished pieces in final rehearsals and to subject themselves to amiable interrogations.

The showcase began with ‘Ikstuarpok’ by Gill Lambert. The title is an Inuit word describing a feeling of anticipation which leads to looking outside to see if anyone is coming, the outside in this case being the Yorkshire Dales in late autumn viewed by a writer, presumably the poet, from somewhere near a passing train on the Settle to Carlisle line. Snow is anticipated, and not just snow. Love, unstated, is also in the air. The writer is prepared to run outside to greet it: “...You can’t delay the snow/or bring it on. Look away./ The snow will come, or not.” Some lines were pruned out from the printed version, a wise decision, because the result was beautiful: Nat King on the piano was an able performer of Emily Abdy’s music. This began with brief sequences reminiscent of George Butterworth’s setting for The Banks of Green Willow, continued with delicately pattering notes, then wound up to the final lines, sung with sensitivity by mezzo-soprano Annie George.

Rob Miles captures the casual youthful brutality of his relationship with his older sibling in ‘For us, brother’: “It was all fists and sun, who could take it/or have to break away.” It is full of harsh alliterative delights: “... our small palms/ crossed with heated coppers/ as we scrapped for scalding pennies/ scattered at the fair...” and rounds off with a tractor “fuming past us holding up/ its torch of cooling hay.” Composer and pianist Michael Betteridge understood the poem’s dynamics well with runs of repeated notes, the pointing up of key phrases, a harmonic change and a steady progression towards the final line. This ended with a sudden diminuendo on the word “hay”, sung by Timothy Coleman, an impressive young tenor.

Ralph Dartford’s moving poem about the death of a friend,Zak’, became the core of a stunningly successful performance, lines intelligently rearranged, by singer Jacqui Wicks. Accompanied by Jonny Best, with music from Ed Cooper, she dominated the room with her powerful voice, beginning with the line that had originally closed the poem, “When your gaze dropped”. She repeated it a number of times until it became almost ritualistic, then turned to lines from the middle: “We had but a little time/ to laugh and dance”. The music, appropriately melancholy, with agonised piano sequences punctuating the singing, was melodic.

Clare Shaw’s ‘Boxing Day, 2015’ is not just about the appalling floods, but memories of them were well stirred: “Lights out/all down the valley./ Night/loud with the sound of alarms.” It was delivered with sustained power thanks to composer Louise Drewett, pianist Greta Astedt and soprano Natasha Page, who has a voice fit for an opera house. Lines were rearranged towards the end, as the poet yearns for loving comfort. Here, the piano conveyed the anxiety of the words minimally. As with Dartford’s ‘Zak’, there is a much longer personal narrative in there for the listener to imagine.

A series of jagged discords (Lynette Yoe, piano, Nathaniel Gubler, composer) began ‘After the Annunciation’ by Aaron Lembo, a kind of spin-off from a Renaissance painting: “Gabriel sought solace in The Garden;/ there he sat and wept by an olive tree.” Despite the Biblical references, the poem is about unwelcome news of a forced pregnancy, possibly a rape, the woman not necessarily Mary. “Ordered to penetrate her lucid dream/ the seraph pointed to her belly”. I imagine the seraph in a medic’s white coat. Her response, “no, no, not me ...” was delivered sotto voce by soprano Rosalind Dobson, who was terrific, especially when she walked slowly off stage still singing, adding to the drama.

Patrick Lodge’s gem ‘Song of the Endeavour’, in which Captain Cook’s vessel speaks to the readers, or listeners, is a joyful celebration of science discovery and travel, with an 18th century flavour. The ship assures her crew: “No figurehead to see for’ard, calm the deep; yet, brave sailors, do not fear,/ for I will caper cat-pawed and loose-jointed over all waves”. The waves were represented forcefully throughout (Jordan Platt, composer, Tom Crathorne, piano) with a rolling series of bass notes, but the ship did not caper forward speedily enough for my taste: the tempo should have been brisker. Soprano Eleanor Gibson’s articulation was brilliant.

The relatively slow tempo of ‘Flightpath’ (Pat Pickavance, poet, Jake Randell, composer, Federico Pozzer, piano) seemed appropriate for the subject, signifying persistence: “They are coming, the migrants:/ Moving in sure and certain hope ...” and baritone Ollie Margerison sang as if he was conveying an important message. He was pitted against the pianist, who created percussive noises from the insides of the Steinway - pictured, slapping and drumming, bringing to mind a sense of turbulence. I saw the birds in the sky and the humans in the rubber boats, clearly. The final lines have real power - “tumbling, trapezing, twisting, twirling/ they try to outfly/ the end of the world”.

‘Songs of Saudi’ (Di Slaney, poet, Omar Shahryar composer and pianist) followed on with some logic because of its themes of flight, war and waiting for news. Safe, happy times are gone, and the one meaningful link, and cause of stress, is a phone: “and I sweat and hum, hear you already/ holding the phone tight to make it ring”. Rich-voiced mezzo soprano Emily Hodkinson pushed the repetition-laden narrative along at a cracking pace. A sense of fear was evoked by the insertion of real, recorded ring and dial tones into the music as punctuation at regular intervals, using a laptop perched on the end of the piano.

Pianist Alexey Pudinov was another who made use of the piano’s innards for The Setting Sun (poet Alan Gillott, composer Dennis Tjiok), this time brushing the strings with his palm, though he spent most of his time playing straightforward phrases interspersed with heavy, surprising notes. It fitted with the words, which tell of a nightmarish journey escaping famine and persecution. The last stanza was spoken by baritone Edward Robinson, and it worked: “The setting sun in shades of pink and purple/ Draws fading memories of our desperate journey/ Cast by bards into tales of heroic glory ...”

Charlotte Carrick’s ‘Shining with 1000 Quivers’ is a surreal, recipe-like poem, which lost about a quarter of its lines during the collaboration with composer Joseph Wistow. For most of its length, pianist Marcus Bingham was quite restrained, simple sequences moving up and down the keyboard. This was appropriate for long lines like “Ripple your way through colours of majestic hopes, sniff your sublime scent and serve with fresh awakenings”. Mezzo soprano Rachel Cawte coped well with a piece that could be hard to crack, cutting through any enigmas to sound convincing.


Richard Wilcocks has worked as a journalist, as a teacher, and for the British Council in Poland. Currently, he is secretary (and founder) of the annual Headingley LitFest. His most recent publication is 'Stories from the War Hospital' (2014). A regular contributor of classical music reviews to the Bachtrack website, he sings with Leeds Festival Chorus and occasionally in local folk clubs. His poetry has been published in various places, including Transatlantic Review, Prism, and Iron. With Anna Zukowska, he translated the poems of Polish poet KK Baczynski, which appear in Poetry of the Second World War: An International Anthology edited by Desmond Graham. 





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Alan Gillott

Thu 27th Apr 2017 21:44

Thank you Richard Wilcocks for a thoughtful and measured review. This was in my view one of the best programmes that Leeds Lieder has fielded both in terms of the Poetry set and the settings themselves. The settings were genuinely 21st C rather than late 20th and the pieces all paid attention to the sensibilities of the listener - a feature not often found in the work of undergrad or postgrad compositions. The poetry too was especially excellent with a number of contributions from well known and respected mid Yorkshire bards.
What Richard was unable to say was that the event for the participants is an all day extravaganza with each poem and composition performed before a specialist panel who comment on the work presented. What was especially gratifying was the quality of the critiques and the professionalism of the panel.

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