wed 22/05/2024

First Person: Leeds Lieder Festival director and pianist Joseph Middleton on a beloved organisation back from the brink | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Leeds Lieder Festival director and pianist Joseph Middleton on a beloved organisation back from the brink

First Person: Leeds Lieder Festival director and pianist Joseph Middleton on a beloved organisation back from the brink

Arts Council funding restored after the blow of 2023, new paths are being forged

Joseph Middleton and mezzo Katerina Karnéus at the 2016 Leeds Lieder Festival

Everyone needs friends and everything is connected. As we throw the doors open on to the 2024 Leeds Lieder Festival I am struck by just how remarkable classical music can be for a community, particularly when it is looked after and invested in by its own community.

It was well documented that last year the Leeds Lieder Festival was dealt a blow by Arts Council England, when they rejected a Festival grant application for the first time in our decades long history. Ironically that Festival welcomed the highest number of first-time concert attendees and was praised in The Guardian for its programming, “from inner city to international, world-class music making”. The Times enjoyed our “star performers, engaging new commissions and bold educational projects.” 

The past twelve months have seen extraordinary generosity on the part of philanthropists wanting to invest in our work. I sense real civic pride. I have witnessed a desire from people to see us succeed and enjoy longevity because for years we have been in a state of ambitious growth and they recognise we are doing excellent work. I am extremely pleased that in 2024 our Festival is once again being supported by ACE. I hope this will continue, because I believe passionately that every aspect of our work enriches lives in the most profound way. I don’t think the question should be "can we afford to fund this work?", I think the question should be "can we afford not to?"’ Put simply, I believe that mankind has never needed culture more than it needs it now and I think classical music can fulfil so many facets of what a balanced society needs in the 21st century.  Joseph MiddletonOur headline work is putting on recitals of Lieder, or art song, given by the world’s greatest exponents. I am the first to admit this is a niche and rarefied corner of classical music, a genre that already sits on the side of the public consciousness. But those of us who experience it are evangelical about how it can fortify your existence, and I have seen it enrich the lives of many of our audience members. This year’s Festival includes well-known repertoire, from Schubert to Sting, but we’ll also premiere 22 new works too. The very nature of songs, where the texts can suggest such fruitful interplay, mean that there is such exciting possibility for really interesting exchange of ideas, or juxtaposition of thought-provoking themes. Song encourages self-reflection and song concerts can bring communities together, encourage friendships and offer a special kind of mindfulness.

Thanks to the investment we have received this year, from ACE, and many, many others, we are mounting a Festival that I hope proves we need to change the dialogue in the mainstream media and in certain funding bodies so that mankind’s greatest achievements aren’t seen as elitist but as remarkable expressions of the human condition that we can all learn from. I’ve seen at Leeds that if you get the punters through the front door, if the gig is good, they will come back for more, and I’ve seen this with punters from all ages and demographics. 

Our gigs are good. And it’s OK to say that. Singers who sing in our recitals are like Olympic athletes. They are elite. And I’m pleased about that. If I’m watching Wimbledon, I want to watch the world’s finest tennis stars and marvel at their sporting prowess. Those who watch the Six Nations or support Lewis Hamilton or Alastair Cook expect to see elite sportspeople with superhuman powers. I certainly feel a sense of wonder when going to the ballet - now there’s elite superhuman power! There’s an uncomfortable dialogue around the arts and elitism though, particularly, it seems, in funding, and I find it a mystery. Every artist I know is passionately committed to spreading their love of music as far as possible and I think it’s good to invest in excellence. Everyone wins this way from the six year old child we have in our schools programme, to the retiree taking part in our community projects. Our ACE funded audience development work revealed just how much income we brought to the region with our work too, so if you’re only concerned with the bottom line, fund the arts and you’ll get your money back plenty of times over. Joseph Middleton and James NewbyOver the course of our 32 Festival events, the public will hear songs in English, German, Punjabi, French, Latin, Russian, Spanish and Chinese amongst others, sung by some of the world’s greatest artists [pictured above by Linden Shots, Joseph Middleton and James Newby]. They have spent decades honing their craft, studying, refining, so that they can communicate with an audience, all the time performing a high-wire act. It is no small feat to sing in multiple languages, without any trace of accent, without a microphone, the most demanding rhythmic and harmonic patterns, often off by heart, with only two flaps of skin in one’s throat the size of a five pence piece as your instrument. We pianists performing with them aren’t slouches either and have undergone quite the elite training. 

At this year’s Leeds Lieder Festival we are filling the city with song. As well as performing in the stunning concert halls of Opera North and Leeds Conservatoire, our artists are bringing song to the Sikh Centre (for a world premiere by Cheryl Frances Hoad, her Punjabi Proverbs), the trendy student club The Hyde Park Book Club, to beautiful Kirkstall Abbey, to Leeds Minster, shopping centres and a bar. We want to make our work as accessible as possible and we’ll do this without compromising any excellence. All our work is being live-streamed in an attempt to further grow audiences and to reach younger people. It’s all free to view in an attempt to break down financial barriers. I do think everything will be of the highest quality, and will only provoke, move, inspire and encourage people because many of those involved are elite. In terms of audience engagement and development, we are simply presenting the highest quality art in a totally unpretentious way. 

The greatest challenge any musician in the UK faces, is to work in a sphere that is so affected by incredibly damaging governmental cuts to arts education and the continued decimation of classical music funding. The sector is grossly misunderstood and the lack of investment is shortsighted. Society has never needed art more than it needs it now. It is a vital part of what humans need in order to feel enriched and to be rounded, healthy individuals. The perfect storm of Brexit, a Pandemic, and years of underfunding from the government is leaving a generation open to serious mental health problems and a life considerably poorer. Leeds Lieder educationI have also learned how precarious arts education is in the UK, and that if organisations like Leeds Lieder didn’t fundraise and do what we do, going into schools across the region to work with 1000s of school children each year, great swathes of our children will have no access to quality music education. We all recognise just how vital the arts are to a child’s development, intellect, creativity and empathy and yet for some inexcusable reason they are regularly denied and starved of this by shortsighted policymakers. Incidentally, our pedagogues are elite artists too, with an extraordinary skill-set honed so that children respond in the most extraordinary way to our work. The list of schools wanting to sign up to our programmes grows year on year thanks to us placing the benchmark high. 

So, it is with enormous joy that we open the 2024 Leeds Lieder Festival. It was started 20 years ago by volunteers wanting to mount high quality recitals in Yorkshire. They saw a gap in the musical provision in the North and filled it. This year is my tenth year as Director and what a privilege it has been to work in a community that recognises what classical music can do in the cultural landscape of a region. And what a joy it is to be on stage performing with elite artists. Let’s keep investing. The rewards for everyone are huge. 

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