Monday, 19 October 2015

Great Songs Great Poets - in partnership with Leeds Lieder

Lieder? Songs? Poetry? It’s all the same kettle of fish, really, a fact recognized at Great Songs Great Poets on Saturday evening at the Heart Centre in Headingley, where the emphasis was on performance. Call it a recital if you like. It’s a word which might please them down at Leeds Lieder+, the co-organisers with the LitFest, and to whose founder, Jane Anthony, the whole thing was dedicated. It had everything necessary to transform the kettle of fish into a perfect, satisfying bouillabaisse, with not just smart chefs but a subtle blend of themes: war and peace, love and death, the well established and the fresh and new.

Jonathan Fisher, Richard Wilcocks, Kimberley Raw, James Berry, Hollie-Anne Bangham, Jane Oakshott                             Photo by Ian Garvey
Headingley resident Jane Anthony, who died so tragically last year, would have approved of this event, which was originally intended for autumn last year. At a meeting which turned out to be final, she agreed a general outline of a programme with LitFest secretary Richard Wilcocks in July 2014, and it was this draft which was taken up in 2015 in meetings between Wilcocks and Jonathan Fisher, who is pianist-in-residence at the University of Huddersfield and staff pianist at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. He is also an honorary fellow of the Association of English Singers and Speakers. The result was a programme of singing and speaking which included some Shakespeare along with the relatively new and the relatively old.

The singers - all of them from the RNCM - could be described as “relatively new” because they are students there, but they performed like seasoned virtuosi, with great maturity and with a force which would impress on any stage or in any grand theatre. Music which was sometimes tricky and difficult gave them few problems. Baritone James Berry was particularly masterly in delivering War Scenes , composed in 1969 with the dedication “To those who died in Vietnam, both sides, during the composition: 20 – 30 June 1969”.  Ned Rorem used texts from Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, a memoir of his time as a nurse in the American Civil War, and Whitman’s words, describing the grotesque sights and sounds in a field hospital, were very effectively conveyed to the audience (an intimate one, around tables) through Rorem’s modern recitative style. The diction was excellent, the voice rich.  The same voice became more lyrical when it came to Let Us Garlands Bring, five songs by Gerald Finzi taken from various Shakespeare texts. Mezzo Hollie-Anne Bangham was strong on the diction too, dealing with Robert Schumann’s Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart as if she had just spent the last six months in some conservatoire in Germany. Die Sängerin sang mit echtes Gefühl. Her tones were mellow, just right for the story of the Queen of Scots who lost her head, and her engagement was intense. Abschied von der Welt was especially moving. Soprano Kimberley Raw really lived the songs which resulted from a collaboration between Benjamin Britten and W H Auden, as if she was singing operatic arias, and she gave the audience a really passionate finale with three of the pair’s Cabaret Songs. The last one of the evening was Funeral Blues, well known to anyone who has watched the film Four Weddings and a Funeral

Throughout, the songs were interspersed with poems. Each of the singers also read (or rather performed) these beautifully. Hollie-Anne read Emily Dickinson’s Nature, the gentlest mother and Sara Teasdale’s There Will Come Soft Rains (with Kimberley), and James read a series of Shakespeare lines (from Hamlet, Richard II and Measure for Measure) alongside Richard Wilcocks.

The two readers representing the LitFest were Richard Wilcocks and Jane Oakshott. Richard read an extract from Whitman’s Specimen Days (The Battle of Chancellorsville) and delivered passionately a poem famous in the United States since the nineteenth century and made even more famous because of its misuse in the film Dead Poets Society – O Captain! My Captain!  He explained that this was dedicated to Abraham Lincoln by the poet, but that some people thought it was originally written after Whitman had finished Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. He also read W H Auden’s emotive Refugee Blues, written in 1939 but with an obvious relevance to the world of today. Jane brought a considerable amount of dramatic finesse to both Sonnet 129, bringing all its nuanced feelings to the fore, and to the last letter written by poor Mary. For this Jane entered completely into the role, even beginning with a line of the original French, becoming a royal woman trying to come to terms with the fact that she was just about to meet the headsman. Tears glistened in plenty of eyes.

Jonathan Fisher was an adept accompanist for all the pieces, and we owe him our sincere thanks and appreciation for all his work rehearsing with the singers over in Manchester and generally sorting the music out. Hopefully, there will be another occasion in the future when the participants can get together again. 

Audience comments

A nice varied programme with splendid performers. It was especially good to hear a   trio of very capable young singers, and I’m sure that we shall hear more of them.         Altogether a fitting memorial to Jane Anthony too.

An enriching evening’s entertainment that provided a rare and valued opportunity to relate to poetry in the context of music and a lovely tribute to Jane Anthony.

A thoroughly enjoyable concert/recital – splendid singing and an interesting variety of interpretation and performance. Difficult to specify a single performance – all were most professional and I hope will have very long and successful careers. Thanks must also go to the Arts Council and its support.

While Leeds has a reputation for fine music, such quality doesn’t often filter down to
 the suburbs. I hope there are many more great performances by trained singers as 
at this evening’s event.

As I’ve not come to any previous Leeds Lieder performances – I found this 
informative and mostly enjoyable. Good to have my cultural life extended. I was 
sitting near the front and thought maybe I would have heard the words of some 
Lieder more clearly from further back. Perhaps that is because I am not used to this 
medium. The Shakespeare were wonderful - the Schumann fascinating (I may now 
read them) and the Britten caught you ‘unawares’ – at time amusing and the pianist 
was a treat to listen to as an accompanist.

A challenging evening themed around war and death! A real commitment from all 
the performers who presented a high standard of musical and poetic talent. Good to
 experience something different!

An enjoyable programme with uncluttered presentation of poetry, not overpowered
 but enhanced by the simple musical accompaniment. Excellent performances.

Intimate event. Singers sang with great emotion in a largely somber programme! 
And readers showed great expression. Just enough ‘lighter’ content to lift tone of the 

Much enjoyed the mix of composers esp. cabaret turns. We should have a few more 
recitals like this in the wide open spaces between Lieder festivals. PS. We didn’t need 
the printed copies of Death, though the words of some soprano songs didn’t come 
over clearly.  

A script or copy of the translation (in English) of Schumann’s Final cycle of songs for 
voice ….(1,2,3,4,5) would have been useful as I don’t speak or understand German. 
Enjoyed the reading of Auden’s Refugee blues by Richard Wilcocks -
 read/performed with real feeling and understanding. A surprising evening!! Not
 quite what I expected. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect but I thoroughly enjoyed the evening –some outstanding 
performances, both reading and singing. Hope the HLF put on more events like 
this: very different!

Classical and classy, this programme was top notch. Personally, I find it very hard to
 follow words that are sung and would have been glad if more songs were prefaced 
by Richard and Jane reading the text out first. Or else, another time, the texts can be 
given in the programme. However, an evening of brilliant talent.  

Pianist, singers and readers all excellent. Loved the Britten sings. The subject matter
 was really dark mostly – a bit of lightness would have been welcome – but lovely 

Very good quality of singers and poetry readers. Not very happy about the theme
which was about death in the first half and a bit gruesome. Second Half – execution 
of Mary Queen of Scots, Refugees. Problem of words in Cabaret songs.

Great singing by all and lovely readings. Particularly enjoyed Finzi and cabaret 
songs. Jane was very vivid and really brought her scenes to life!

Great performance of Britten especially and Jane Oakshott was a fantastic reader

Singers were technically brilliant. Pianist was great. Refugee poem and male 
reader were fantastic.  

Wonderful to see young singers given an opportunity to perform.

Very enjoyable esp. Schumann and Britten.

 Amazing performances by all. I particularly enjoyed the music.

A most appropriate and intimate venue for chamber music.

Great evening. Thanks!

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Indefatigable in spreading a message of hope

Iby Knill - 'The Woman Without a Number'

Headingley Library, Tuesday 13th October

Partnership event as part of the Headingley Festival of Ideas: Change

Sally Bavage writes: 
                       Photo by Richard Wilcocks
Iby, going on ninety-two and appearing a generation younger in both spirit and energy, kept a full house in Headingley library rapt with attention for well over an hour, reading from her own work and answering a series of penetrating questions as well as joining in the debate and commentary. Iby often talks to school and college audiences who are studying the Holocaust, and regularly skypes young people from Brazil to China. She also addresses adult audiences of four hundred plus. Daunting at any age but she is indefatigable in spreading her message of hope.

She addressed the Headingley Festival of Ideas theme by outlining how changes during her life had altered the directions she took. She first read to us from the introduction to her memoir The Woman Without a Number (now in its eighth printing by local publisher Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd, available from Iby's website as as well as online and as an e-book), detailing her escape from Czechoslovakia to Hungary as a teenager. Other facets of her life include working for the Hungarian resistance and making small acts of rebellion in surviving despite Dr Mengele in Auschwitz and a slave prison camp where it was less 'Arbeit Macht Frei' but more 'work or die'. The book lacks self-pity entirely and does not dwell on the horrors she encountered; she does, however, make Sebastian Faulks' heroine Charlotte Gray look a bit of a wimp.

She continued the theme of Change with a snippet read from her new book, working title The Woman with Nine Lives and due out in January 2016. Adjusting to her new country was not always easy, for although she spoke fluent English she did not always understand the culture. She went on to have two children, and many careers,but settled in Leeds decades ago. She is a 'loiner' by choice.

Discussion and commentary then focussed on how the writing of the memoir after sixty years of silence had come about, what differences it had made both to her and her children and how we can all contribute in ways small and large to change mass genocide and the movements of refugees from war and oppression which are still going on.

Despite the topics raised, Iby handled the discussion with delicacy, warmth and vigour. Is there a just cause for war? What is the difference between sin and evil? As she said, “Atrocity knows no nationality”.  Iby's poem, which she read out as a conclusion, perhaps sums up her philosophy that "under the skin we are all the same - and each one of us can make a difference"? You can read this, and many other details, on Iby's own website at

A final illustration of her determination to broach a difficult subject without a trace of self-pity: when I enquired about her use of a stick to assist her painful hip, she calmly told me it was caused by a blow from a rifle butt. With a smile, no drama. Chastening.

With grateful thanks to the staff from Headingley library who supported this event. Iby's book is available for loan from the library. A donation has been made on her behalf to the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association.

Audience Comments