The Leader of Oxford Lieder

The Oxford Lieder Festival has been going from strength to strength and is now celebrating its 15th anniversary. The founder and artistic director, Sholto Kynoch, spoke with Mel Cooper about what is fast becoming an international must-attend not just for its superb performances and master classes but for its intelligent thematic programming.

Pianist Sholto Kynoch is not only a much sought-after accompanist for singers and chamber musicians, a soloist, and founder of the Phoenix Piano Trio, but he is also the inspiration and soul behind the increasingly noteworthy Oxford Lieder Festival now celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. Taking place in the famous city of spires, towers, academic achievement and an internationally successful auto industry that produces the iconic Mini, the festival nowadays spans two full weeks every Autumn and provides about one hundred events. Have started small in 2002, Kynoch’s aspirations for a world-renowned series have now come true and the Oxford Lieder Festival is becoming a major event in the classical music calendar, full of performances that any lover of the art song simply is aching to attend. The turning point came in 2012, when for the tenth anniversary year, Kynoch and his team decided that they should, the following season, attempt the complete Schubert song cycle. They immediately began building towards that confident that somehow they would pull it off. “The budget literally tripled for the next year,” Kynoch told me, “and the artists I contacted were very excited at the prospect of a strong theme so we pretty much managed to attract all the major people that we went after for the festival. After that year and the next, the festival simply burgeoned! And we have managed to keep it at that high level ever since.”

The first festival was put together in 2002 by Sholto Kynoch and a group of his friends decided to create the event as a kind of reaction to finishing their Finals – a major stressful event if you attend Oxford University as you write all the exams of your entire three or four years of studies in one series of ten or so examinations at the end of all your studies.

Kynoch’s original Mission Statement was to “create for Oxford a lieder festival which would also help promote a wider resurgence of the classical song repertoire”. This fits still with today’s mission. And I can tell you from experience, that there is a growing, regular audience attending who are more and more devoted to exploring the world of classical lieder.

Sholto Kynoch explained to me that the theme this year is centred upon Mahler and the musical life of fin de siècle Vienna. “Our first major thematic festival was the Schubert year; and then we did Schumann. This project is not as single-mindedly composer-focused but is trying to be more expansive and inclusive and perhaps set a new approach. Mahler is very much at the centre, but he wrote just under fifty songs, including his cycles, and so we have made that a starting point for a much wider-ranging programme. The birth of the 20th Century is a very attractive period to explore in Vienna because, yes, we have Schoenberg beginning to break down tonality and Richard Strauss and Alban Berg doing exciting, mad things with orchestration. That’s why the musical life of Vienna of that period seemed to me to be such a good focus and, of course, in many ways Mahler was at its centre. You not only have the first appearances of modernistic approaches in that period but also you have the obsession with the past. In Vienna itself at that time there were exhibitions of Biedermeier landscape painting and there was an almost universal interest in music that included not only the waltzes of the Johann Strauss family but the hero worship of Beethoven, an obsession with Schubert and a fascination with all things from the past. Mahler is someone who was accused of being backward looking but he was also forward-looking and very accepting of the experimentation and restlessness of that era. His musical style seems to me to encapsulate all that, to look both forward and backward. So our project gives us a neat way to be able to programme earlier composers but also test the waters for our audiences with different and more disparate things. We refer in our title for this year to the Last of the Romantics but that also implies, I believe, the first of the Moderns.”

Kynoch is the artistic director of every festival but has a dedicated team of professionals behind him helping with all the organization and logistics of putting on so many, complex and inter-related events in such a short period of time.

“In terms of specific events, we have crème de la crème of the singing world coming to perform as well as the best partners in the field to accompany them. We are also on the lookout for the best, new, rising talent in the field such Benjamin Appl and Kathryn Rudge. A lot of our regular favourites are coming again too. Ian Bostridge and Angelika Kirschshlager are among those making return visits, Ann Murray is giving an important Master Class. Anna Stéphany who has just had amazing successes this year with Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden and with La Clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne will be giving a recital, for instance. One of our most exciting new initiatives is that we will for the first time have the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performing with us. On the opening night they will do the chamber version of Mahler’s Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen and also of Das Lied von der Erde, which were orchestrated by Schoenberg for smaller forces, and conducted by Thomas Kemp. The soloists are baritone Dietrich Henschel and tenor Toby Spence. As always, the orchestra will explore the works on original instruments of the relevant period. We are also doing a handful of Strauss songs for the same number of players performed by Kate Royal. Thomas Kemp, the conductor, uncovered these arrangements originally made for cinema for use with silent movies. And speaking of silent movies, on the first Sunday of the festival the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will be back to do something very special in the Oxford Town Hall. We will be showing on the big screen the 1926 silent film of Der Rosenkavalier with the orchestra playing Strauss’s own suite that he wrote for the film and which he conducted himself when it was shown at the Tivoli Cinema in the Strand. Yes, he personally came to London to conduct this arrangement. This was last done in the UK over twenty years ago at the Edinburgh Festival but it hasn’t been done since, as far as I can discover, and it is the first time in London. Thomas Kemp has been doing a lot of background research onto how music and the cinema met. This is what is behind one of our many study events addressing the issue that day and the screening of the film at 7 PM.”

There are definitelhy a lot of fascinating concerts and study events scheduled for this year’s festival. So if you haven’t been to the Oxford Lieder Festival before, my advice is to try to make a full day of it when you do attend and not just to pick the celebrity concerts. Try to come to all five event of the day, especially the study sessions.

Every day is thought through with interrelated performances and study sessions, with mini-themes that have been very carefully considered and juxtaposed; and every day is very sociable and enjoyable. People do come from all over the world to attend; and you can buy a season ticket that lets you into any and every event during the festival.

The Oxford Lieder Festival takes place this year from Friday, 13 October until Saturday, 28 October 2017. There are numerous concerts, study sessions and Master Classes to enjoy in several historic venues; and, of course, the historic city of Oxford itself and its famous colleges to explore.

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