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Lieder in Pembroke: Interview with Joseph Middleton (Part 2)

The Sir Arthur Bliss Song series is a series of performances of Lieder Music held in the Old Library.

image2This term we have so far heard stunning performances from Kathryn Rudge and Jennifer Johnston, and can look forward to the final concert of term from Ashley Riches.  All the artists are accompanied by College Musician and highly-acclaimed Lieder musician Joseph Middleton.  In this two-part blog, he talked to Kit Smart about the Bliss series, Lieder musicians, and music in Pembroke. You can read part 1 here.

You can buy tickets for the next recital on the 15th November here

So coming back to the Bliss series, a lot of the people involved you’ve worked with in the past, but who do you look for to do these recitals?

Well they’re all firstly outstanding singers with great reputations. Often I tie it in with other concerts we’re doing elsewhere. For example Jennifer Johnston, an ex-Caius lawyer, is coming next week.  I’m doing a week of radio 3 lunchtime concerts and Jennifer is doing one of those for me.  It’s a great way for audiences here to see artists they’d otherwise have to travel to London or Amsterdam or another major city in order to see.  Here, they can just roll out of their front door. It’s great for the artists as well to present repertoire they might be about to perform in a really big venue elsewhere.  Often I’ve invited singers to do a concert here the week before we’re about to do a disk or big recording.

Tying into that, this has been going for a few years now, when you started what did you want to achieve and is it achieving it? Are you happy with the process of the series?

I really am.  Every singer who comes here asks to come back, which is really nice, and these are not singers who need to ask for work, so it’s really lovely when you invited someone like Sir Thomas Allen, he loved it here and was really keen to come back. Dame Felicity Lott was also really keen to come back.  I sometimes get told when I’m doing concerts that Lieder is a hard sell for audiences because it’s an art form that perhaps people come to later in life or need to grow into, it’s very thoughtful and its certainly an art form you get more out of if you invest some time in knowing what the texts mean.  This is why we always have translations at concerts.

So yes, I really wanted there to be an outlet in Cambridge where people could hear the finest artists without travelling to London, and the Old Library seemed a perfect space for what we do.

The Pembroke Lieder scheme has been great; it’s been an awesome part of my job.  As a rule singers on that scheme haven’t worked like this before.  They all have workable voices and reasonably good piano technique but none of them have been coached in the way that we work and a lot of them find it revelatory that this is the way people Sarah Connolly, who worked with them last year, this is how she works, this is how John Mark Ainsley works, in this much depth in this much thoughtful detail, and working that much with imagination.

You’ve touched on this already, but for the completely new to this work, what does it take for an artist to get to the point of performing in the Bliss series?

Well we have many different stages of artists coming. Kathryn Rudge, for example, is still young, but she’s singing major roles in English National Opera, she’s on the BBC New Generation artist scheme so she’s doing really well, but she’s at a different stage to someone like Thomas Allen who came and is something like 70.  But they all have in common that they have extraordinary voices, that are really individual.  They have trained like athletes for years and years and years to get to the point where they can sing, without a microphone, the most complex music and project it with seemingly no effort.  They’re often fluent in French, German, Italian, sometimes Russian, Spanish as well.  And yeah I think people don’t realise how much work goes in.  They come along and they seem so polished and poised but the amount of intellectual work that goes in is immense.  Singing the right notes, rhythms and words is a miniscule part of the work that goes in.  A lot of it is time not singing, its thinking time, getting to grips with the character of each song, working with a pianist.  We spend a lot of time talking instead of just singing.  Discussing a duo interpretation of each piece.

When you hear someone sing it seems effortless, and people don’t necessarily realise what goes on

No I don’t think they do realise , and they don’t realise that a voice – because it’s part of your body -is changing the whole time. It’s not like you learn to sing and then that’s it. It’s shifting everyday so you’re always juggling and re-evaluating how your body responds to your voice and how you use different resonating spaces, how you support the sound with very highly trained muscles that know exactly how tense they need to be for the sound to be supported but how free they need to be for the breath to be free. It’s a remarkable thing that a human can do, to produce a sound with vocal chords that are the size of a 5p piece, singing in these huge venues completely unaided by any microphones.  It’s really an amazing human feat.  And then you look past the sound they all have which is astounding, to the intellectual vigour they are pouring into what the words mean – it’s an amazing art form.

People won’t know this because you don’t see this, it’s like watching the Olympics you don’t realise how highly trained they are.

You can most easily compare it to being an Olympic athlete because it’s that level of training and dedication.  If you do well in it it’s the most amazing job ever but the sacrifices are huge.  There are opera singers I know who are away from home maybe ten months of every year.  I travel a lot and so every week I’m doing two or three concerts, lots of trains and planes. It’s brilliant fun but it’s a huge amount of work.

So coming back to you as college musician, what would you hope, for a Pembroke student, for them to get out of their time here, musically speaking?

Pembroke is going through an amazing period musically. It’s an incredibly rich place to be.  There are four of members of staff directly involved in college music, which for a college of this size is amazing.  There’s nowhere else in Cambridge that boasts an international song series like this, so I just hope they would relish the chance to throw themselves into all the different music making that’s laid on for them.  The great joy of chapel singing, hearing brilliant artists sing, for free, almost under their bedrooms, the fact that they have people here with links to the outside world who can offer great advice. There’s just so much here, but I think everybody who comes here is so thirsty for this type of environment that they just lap it up

I want to then ask an open ended question, which is what does your work mean to you?

It’s a great privilege to do something you love every day. That sounds cheesy but I really do love it.  It’s an amazingly privileged thing to wake up every day and choose who you work with, what you play.  Obviously there’s a huge amount of work that’s gone into music-making to get to that point, but it’s wonderful to spend your life with amazing music that really is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the pinnacles of human endeavour. It’s an amazing thing to me that someone who wrote a piece some 300 years ago, can affect us emotionally today even though we never met them and may not even be from the same country. It’s a remarkable human achievement.  I’m very, very lucky that the colleagues I work with are all similarly minded. The role of the accompanist is an interesting one because you work with a lot of different people and come into contact with outstanding people at different points in their lives.  I work with people in their 70s and 80s who have travelled the world and become extremely acclaimed in what they do, to learn from them and draw from what they know is fascinating. But then also working with singers your own age where you can learn side by side is great. The travel is something I love; it’s amazing someone is paying me to go to New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam.  It’s pretty fun.  It is a lot of hard work, there are a lot of suitcases and ironing shirts, but it’s brilliant.

The actual art form, the music, is an amazing human achievement.

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