Melbourne Festival of Lieder and Art Song

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Published: 15th July, 2018

When Patricia Price, Artistic Director of The Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song (MIFLAS), gave the welcoming address, her excitement was understandable. With renowned accompanist and leading authority on Lieder and art song Dr Graham Johnson as Patron and guest artist, alongside guest artist Dr Stephen Varcoe, MIFLAS’s aims were sure to be achieved.

By the end of an intensive week of master classes, concerts and private lessons, there was no doubt that singers and accompanists had been “guided and inspired to attain the deepest possible understanding of the recital repertoire and its performance practice”. Although Graham Johnson’s master classes focused on the works of Schubert and, to some extent, Mahler, and Stephen Varcoe’s on repertoire by mainly English composers, their approaches were similar in many respects and could be applied to art song repertoire in general.

The diverse performance background of participants ranged from 19-year-old singers who had just begun their tertiary studies to accompanists with extensive experience. Some of the participants and many members of the audience were also teachers. Dr Johnson pointed out that singers could only call themselves professionals if they could earn a living, however basic, as a singer, but, as we know, this is an almost Herculean task for singers based in Australia, especially if they are not employed by an opera company. It was not only practising musicians who felt inspired by what these two guides had to offer. Interested members of the general public also benefitted from their deep knowledge, vast experience and overall wit and wisdom. My only reservation about MIFLAS was that so few people, including singers, seemed to know about it.

Each of the two three-hour master classes per day were chock full of quotable quotes. Stephen Varcoe’s energetic good humour put singers at their ease and was entertaining as well as instructive. At one point he responded to some vocal swooping in a song by Vaughan Williams as being “a bit sleazy” rather like “Kings Cross at one am”. Graham Johnson too injected a good deal of light-heartedness into his teaching with references to the perils of Spotify and recoiling when he sat down to demonstrate a point only to be faced with an accompanist’s iPad. His disenchantment with recordings did, however, have a serious aspect since through personal experience he discovered the degree of “jiggery pokery” that went into making them.

Informed tempi, pronunciation that produces the best sound and greatest clarity in terms of articulation and meaning, the vital importance of colour, avoiding undue tension in the body and of maintaining line and quality of tone were recurring themes. Graham Johnson also went to great pains to explain the complexities of contexts in which Schubert and Mahler composed and how this influences interpretation. Yet, although his reverence for Schubert in particular is profound and his erudition and experience enormous, he insisted that the songs should not be treated as holy relics. Singers were encouraged to bring their own personalities to bear, not with ego, but with understanding. For example, his explanation of details found in pieces based on reworkings of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship were engrossing. It made the plight of Mignon and her father so much more real; the characters took on a whole new meaning that was bound to spark the imagination and add an extra dimension to a performance.

In his aim “to communicate in some way my love for the composer” Graham Johnson led us to a fuller appreciation of Schubert. His many demonstrations showed accompanists how they could support and encourage singers. A lack of dogmatism, disarming modesty and a willingness to share some humiliating personal experiences gave them permission to accept that mistakes can be made. There was an emphasis on paying attention and to the process of discovery; “There is no such thing as a definitive version”. Accompanists were put on the spot more than once as he expected them to be as knowledgeable about the text and instructions on the score as the singers. One was urged not to be “sublimely indifferent to her running out of breath”. Listening was considered crucial; both he and Stephen Varcoe thanked the singers who brought the handful of ensemble pieces along for the opportunities they provided for this. Heightened expressiveness (“no schlepping”) and personal authenticity were urged whilst inflated ego and showmanship were deplored.

This is only a glimpse of what these superlative teachers had to offer and does not even begin to do them justice. Yes, you can read Graham Johnson’s books and watch him on Youtube, but the experience that MIFLASprovided was invaluable and rare. As a listener to these emerging artists, I felt immensely privileged and grateful that the University of Melbourne supports such initiatives. We Melbournians can also be grateful that Graham Johnson, who formed the acclaimed Songmakers’ Almanac, encouraged his former pupil, pianist Andrea Katz, to found Songmakers Australia, an ensemble that continues to enrich our lives with music of genius.

Heather Leviston attended sessions at The Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music July 7-13 2018.