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Oxford Lieder Festival (II): Joana Seara (soprano) Sholto Kynoch (piano)  Purcell (arr. Bitten), Walton, Schubert, Respighi, Wolf-Ferrari. Holywell Music Room, Oxford.  24.10.2006. (AO)


Essential to the underlying principles of Oxford Lieder is the idea of developing young performers, and through their enthusiasm, exploring the repertoire. One of the reasons that it has such an excellent reputation for exciting, state of the art content is that its focus is on that basic building tool of music; musicianship.  Audiences know they can rely on this performer-based approach: because the performers are enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and enjoy the ambience of this unassuming, informal festival, they communicate their love of music.   The atmosphere is wonderful, just like the Schubertiades of old and chamber music responds well to this kind of unstuffy intimacy.

Being so performer-focussed, OLF’s network picks up quickly on musicians at the start of their Lieder careers, like Mark Padmore, James Gilchrist, Sophie Daneman and Christanne Stotijn.  Anyone invited to sing here will be interesting in some way.  For example, Elisabeth Watts was fascinating, especially as she was filling in at short notice for no less than John Mark Ainsley  (see review.)

Joana Seara is much younger and less experienced than most, indeed she graduated only this summer from the Guildhall.  Her performance as the lead in the university’s production of Roger Scruton’s opera attracted the national press.   I first encountered her three years ago, when she’d just arrived to join the Guildhall.  She was at a masterclass given by Dame Felicity Lott, and chose to sing from William Walton’s Façade.  These songs are a Flott trademark, so maybe Joana Seara wanted to learn from the best source possible.  She was so good that there wasn’t much to teach her in the circumstances, especially as her voice and her teacher's are so different.

Tonight. Seara started with Britten’s arrangements of Purcell.  Nerves seemed to have got the better of her, as she sang far more lucidly when she turned to Walton again, and A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table.  Walton is an unusual choice for a young singer, since his phrasings are difficult, and his intentions laden with irony.  Even though these songs are less demanding than the fiendishly difficult Façade songs, a singer really needs to be quick witted.   This is the first clue to Seara’s abilities: although not a native English speaker, she has a genuine feel for this tricky verse, and the acerbic sharpness of Walton’s settings.  She appreciates language “as” language, enjoying its little quirks, which, perhaps a native speaker might take for granted.   Thus, in Holy Thursday, to a poem by William Blake, she captures the trudging rhythm of children marching in procession “till into the high dome of St Paul’s, they like Thames waters flow”.  Blake is equivocal, describing the grey old beadles as “wise guardians of the poor”, when we know he normally equates youth, innocence and lambs with something far more powerful than status and control.    Seara has thought the poem through, enough that she can rise to intensity with the punchline “cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door” and wisely, I think,has chosen to approach her songs from understanding their meaning.  If she’s somewhat unsteady in technique, that’s much easier to fix than to teach someone to analyse and feel if that’s not their natural bent. She also has a gift for comedy – one day she will perfect Rhyme, and sing it with the freedom and humour it deserves. 

In contrast, she sang a group of Schubert’s Italian songs next.  There’s not a word of German in them, yet these are immediately recognisable as echt Schubert.  It was another wise choice, as I don’t think Seara is ready for idiomatic German, so these songs give her valuable experience with Schubert’s melodic temperament.  The language can come later : for the moment she’s better off learning the non-verbal style, until it becomes second nature to her.

Schubert’s Italian songs floated smoothly into Respighi’s five Deità silvane, or Woodland Deities, redolent with the sort of brook and shepherd images that Schubert could portray so well.  Respighi, too, can’t resist the imagery, and provides some lovely figure for the piano part indeed, giving Sholto Kynoch a chance to show what a gifted pianist he is. The insouciant gracefulness of these songs let Seara relax and release her voice more fluidly. She has a deft touch for ornamentation, and could indulge a natural facility for sensual mellisimas, while not overloading the delicate mood of reverie. This set of songs was easily the best part of the evening, bringing forth the warmth and sensuousness of Seara’s voice better than anything that had gone before.  In the final song Crepuscolo, the mood darkens noticeably, for the garden filled with music encountered in an earlier song has now fallen silent, abandoned to ivy and overgrowth.  Pan may be sleeping but he’s still powerful, for Seara throws out his name forcefully : “Pan”. Singing in Italian reveals another aspect of Seara’s potential.  The language is made for her basically warm timbre and open vowels.  Reinforced by her acting training and a fondness for dramatic narrative, it could secure her a place in opera :  I’m thinking Mozart or Rossini, but there must be plenty else - like Wolf-Ferrari, whose Quattro rispetti on Tuscan folk songs followed.  

When I was writing up this review, I noticed something that I’d missed before.  The translator of these songs is none other than Seara herself !  Good teachers often say that singers should learn their texts until they understand them by heart (in more ways than one).  Making them translate texts in the first place is a pretty good exercise, because the secret of good translation is to capture the spirit of a poem, as well as express its meaning.  Thus Seara as translator, picks up on textual devices like repeated words and phrases, just as in her singing, she intuits the musical phrasing.  It’s easy to overdo fin de siècle Romanticism but Seara keeps the mood light.  She could become a great interpreter of Hugo Wolf, even more of a challenge musically and emotionally.  So what, if she lost notes here and there : she’s by no means a fully fledged diva.  What she has already mastered is much more basic to good singing than technical flawlessness.  She has a brain, and uses it musically.

And, as is usual with the Oxford Lieder festival, the programme notes are intelligent and well written, in this case by Richard Stokes. 


Anne Ozorio


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)