Tlui Oxford lieder festival has grown since its 2002 inception, with 100-plus events this year: ample room for big names singing the famous song cycles, and a heartening amount of emerging singers and new music. One late-night slot showcased Dream.risk.sing, an hour-long programme devised by the soprano Samantha Crawford and pianist Lana Bode. It focused on women’s stories told through song, and included lots of new or unfamiliar music. Those two facts were related.
The title references woman.life.song, composed in 2000 by Judith Weir for Jessye Norman, from which we heard two songs. First came Breasts!, a chatty setting of words by Clarissa Pinkola Estés that could be a monologue for a pre-teen Judy Blume heroine. This benefited from Crawford’s easy communication of text, while Edge, a remembrance of first love to words by Toni Morrison, sounded haunting with Bode tracing its unrooted harmonies.
At the heart of the programme was Charlotte Bray’s new three-song cycle Crossing Faultlines, written for Crawford and Bode, dealing with women in the workplace – a subject that risks getting hidebound in specificity, ma Nicki Jackowska’s specially written text largely skirts this. The second song tells a succinct story of sexual assault, with ominous, pulsing piano. Altrove, in songs dealing with mentorship and ambition, Bray’s translucent piano writing dances around the voice, leaving it space to shine; the vocal range is challengingly wide, anche se, and several times Crawford was sent audibly past her comfort zone.
Two 2017 songs by Helen Grime stood out: Milk Fever, in which a rippling high piano line celebrates the lactating body, and Council Offices, a lullaby for a stillborn child that ends with the voice entirely, heartbreakingly alone. And male creators weren’t entirely absent – there was room for Ricky Ian Gordon’s bittersweet, almost Sondheimesque celebration of his mother, and Carson P Cooman’s exuberant Ballad. Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me made an apt opener, even if the performers wallowed a little in the song’s nostalgia; the send-off was Michele Brourman’s My Daughters, schmaltzy but touching. If the programme seemed a little of a grab bag, switching styles at will, that’s perhaps just a reflection of the historic paucity of genuinely female-centred material, something that’s on the way to changing thanks to performers and composers such as these.