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Sir Arthur Bliss Song Series

As the choir embarks on a summer tour of Finland, we look at some of the other musical opportunities on offer at Pembroke. Today – the Sir Arthur Bliss Song Series.

Cambridge has a long history of producing some of the world’s finest musicians, and Pembroke College is an important part of that tradition.

The College’s list of musical alumni includes the composer Sir Arthur Bliss, the conductor Christopher Hogwood and the clarinettist Emma Johnson (1985). More recently, the baritone Ronan Collett (2000) and the organists Christopher Gray (1996) and Sarah Baldock (1993) have been added to the list.

However, several years ago Pembroke’s Director of College Music, Dr Sam Barrett, noticed that almost all of the colleges’ music-making centred in one way or another around chapels and choirs. He suggested that Pembroke should create the position of College Musician – someone who could encourage students to enjoy making and listening to different types of music.

Enter Joseph Middleton, world-renowned accompanist. His Twitter account modestly announces: ‘I’m learning the piano.’ In fact, he is one of the most lauded musicians of his generation; The Telegraph have called him ‘the crème de la crème of young British-based musical talent’. He specialises in song work and chamber music, and is – also according to The Telegraph – ‘as classy a Lieder pianist as can be found anywhere in the world’.

So what does a College Musician do? ‘The original job I applied for was to look after non-chapel-based music-making,’ he says. ‘They were looking for someone to coach chamber groups, give piano, singing and conducting lessons and to work with the student music society.’

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He got the job directly after finishing his training at the Royal Academy, and in 2006 started working in partnership with Dr Sam Barrett. He spent several days per week at the College, offering his time and expertise by supporting the music society’s weekly concert series. He also nurtured students with a gift for a particular instrument, inviting in his professional musician friends to give masterclasses.

‘After two years,’ he says, ‘the job evolved into something else. I’m really lucky to work with some super people and so, really, the main thing I can offer now is my connections.’ He began organising a series of recitals known as the Sir Arthur Bliss Song Series, in which he would invite singers to join him for performances in the intimate setting of Pembroke’s Old Library.

Many of the singers are rarely heard outside of the Royal Opera House in London or the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Nonetheless, Joseph says, ‘Lots of the music was written to be performed in a small room the size of somebody’s living room. Most of our lives are spent performing in the great concert halls of the world, but you can’t do Lieder song in a space like that in the same way.’

The Old Library is the right shape, the right height, it doesn’t have too many curtains – it’s a Goldilocks room for Lieder singers. Joseph says: ‘It is a very special room and a superb space for song concerts. Every singer I bring here loves it. They can sing as loud as they want or as softly as they like and it still sounds incredible.’

Joseph sometimes uses the concerts to air new repertoire ahead of major concert-hall performances, meaning that he attracts many of his collaborators to join him. They are some of the world’s finest singers. Past guests have included Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Felicity Lot, Mark Padmore and Sarah Connolly.

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‘Nowhere else in Cambridge, maybe even in the country, boasts five concerts every year with such big names in such a small space and with such cheap tickets,’ he beams. The low price is designed to encourage students to attend – at £5 per student ticket including a glass of wine it is certainly student-budget friendly.

If you can nab a seat in the front row you’re just five foot from the singer. Here the big gestures of musical phasing and acting give way to a subtlety that shows Lieder song to be an art form that works best on a small, intimate scale.

Joseph adds: ‘If people haven’t come to a song gig, I’d encourage them to give it a try. There really is no substitute for seeing something live, so even if classical music isn’t your thing I don’t think there is anyone who can’t be wowed by it. You don’t need to know anything about it; we print the texts so you can glance through what they mean and then look up and watch the singer. The best thing for me would be if students studying a whole range of subjects came along to the gigs. I know everyone is so busy but this is a rare opportunity that is great for anyone with an inquisitive mind.’

For more information about upcoming Bliss concerts, see our website. You may also like to join the concert series mailing list.

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