Leeds Lieder returns this week with an impressive line-up of local, national and international performers
Alongside the festival, which returns this week for a nine-day run, Leeds Lieder programmes a season of concerts and masterclasses throughout the year, in addition to which they run an extensive community outreach and educational programme, going into primary and secondary schools to work with schoolchildren all over Leeds. Sadly, some of that valuable work may now be in jeopardy as last month the festival team received the bad news that they would not be receiving any funding from Arts Council England (ACE) this year. It puts the festival in a vulnerable position financially and means that a large portion of the reserves diligently built up over the years will be put into funding this year’s festival.
“The Arts Council has been really great and so supportive – we have had grants for the festival every year from 2015 to 2022, so to get nothing this time was a shock,” says Joseph Middleton, an internationally acclaimed pianist, who has been director of Leeds Lieder since 2014. “I feel particularly sad about the impact it will have on our work in schools. With arts subjects being side-lined on the curriculum, teams like ours fill in the gaps in what I feel is atrocious Government policy – and in order to do that kind of work we need public funding.” It’s a subject he is, rightly, very passionate about – in a piece which appeared on The Arts Desk website last week, he wrote: “we are being fast-tracked to a society where culture, and especially classical music, is being systematically stamped out of the communities in which we live.”
A Crowdfunder appeal has now been launched to try and secure funding for the festival’s future. In the meantime, this year’s event promises to be another excellent showcase for the artform it celebrates, with a wide range of performances, workshops, talks and masterclasses by top-class artists from all over the world. They include an opening night gala recital featuring tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Ana Manastireanu, Dame Janet Baker, who Middleton describes as “one of the most important British singers of the past 100 years”, in conversation, followed by a s creening of the BBC documentary Janet Baker: In Her Own Words; French soprano Veronique Gens, who rarely performs in the UK; exciting young baritone James Newby; and a last night concert from renowned baritone Sir Simon Keenlyside making his Leeds Lieder debut singing Schubert’s Winterreise.
A centrepiece of this year’s festival is a new initiative – The Leeds Songbook, a re-imagining of a concept that has featured in the festival for a few years which pairs composers with poets to create brand new songs. “We invited 12 local poets to write about someone they know from Leeds, then we paired them up in a kind of ‘speed-dating’ workshop with post-graduate composers from all over the country,” explains Middleton. “Each pair collaborates on creating a song from scratch, then the songs are performed by young singers and pianists from all over the world.” From the hundreds of applications they receive, the festival selects 24 performers, all under the age of 30. The hope is that the Leeds Songbook will continue each year, building up a repertoire of Leeds songs and stories. “What I love about this project is that with the poets we get a rich tapestry of people of all ages,” says Middleton. “Last year we had an 80-year-old woman who read a most heart-breaking poem about her daughter who had died and next to her was an 18-year-old who had written about the clubbing scene in the North and they became friends. A new friendship was born out of that creative collaboration.”
Leeds Lieder is not only a cultural success story, it also, like all arts organisations, contributes a huge amount to the local economy. In 2017 the festival commissioned an independent survey which found that for the £30,000 investment from Arts Council England, the city of Leeds benefitted to the tune of more than £200,000. Middleton, while understandably concerned about the future, remains hopeful. “What’s heartening is that since people have heard about the funding cut, we have had so many messages of support from broadcasters and artists from all over the world.”
Leeds Lieder festival, June 9-17. leedslieder.org.uk To donate to the Crowdfunder visit chuffed.org/project/leedsliederangels