Art song belongs to everyone!

Roderick Williams2056 - credit Theo Williams
© Theo Williams

In just a little more than three months, the 8th Internationaal Lied Festival Zeist will start. Welcoming renowned singers and pianists, rising stars and upcoming young musicians. We are happy to welcome Roderick Williams as one of our guests and artist in residence. Together with pianist Roger Vignoles he will give a recital on opening night, Saturday, May 18: Knights and LegendsBut also, he will be a teacher during our master classes, a jury member of our Young Artist Platform, and compose a brand-new song written especially for the festival. We had a chance to talk to him, and he enthusiastically shared with us his thoughts on teaching, musicianship, the ongoing journey of developing one’s artistry and his yearning for sharing his love for art song.

Williams was our guest in 2022 and is very much looking forward to returning to Zeist this May: ‘I’ve had a taste of what lies ahead of me this year. Of course, it goes without saying that I enjoyed giving concerts, but what I particularly enjoyed was working with young singers in addition to the opportunity of hearing some of my colleagues sing. In this profession of mine, where you go around places giving concerts, it’s not often you get a chance to hear other people perform.’ Hearing fellow musicians perform is inspirational and might shape your own performance in a new way: ‘It’s the only way to experience other musician’s take on a piece of music that I know well. You might hear someone else sing and think: “I’ve never thought of it that way”. It’s cross-pollination’, he adds.

Learning is a many-way road
The same goes for working with the students during the master class: ‘I remember I particularly enjoyed working with young musicians in the classes. In a way it’s a chance to “nerd” in detail about a subject’, he says laughing. ‘When you give a concert, you come on stage, you perform once and then you leave. In a class you get the opportunity to sing a song more than once. I can talk to the singers and pianists about music and try out ideas.’ Williams has good reasons for not being a fan of the term ‘master’ in master classes and prefers to call them workshops: ‘I take great pains to explain to students that I’m not a master. I just have some years of experience. It’s all about learning and learning is two-way, many-ways! It's worth discussing what art song means and how you put that across. These classes are a wonderful, safe space to be able to do that. Not just between the singers, pianists, and myself, but also with the audience. I am delighted that Classical Western Art Song is still popular enough that people come to concerts and enjoy it. And it's very lovely for myself, as well as the younger generation of performers, to interact with the people to whom we perform and ask them what they think. They often are very knowledgeable and experienced themselves.’

Looking for the X-factor
Aside from the master classes, Williams will be a jury member of the Young Artist Platform. Once again, he argues against a sense of hierarchy: ‘”Jury” sounds quite legal and there’s an element of sitting in judgment on singers in it. It’s that part with which I feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I’m sitting there to put up a red flag saying: you’re a success, you’re a failure. That’s why I so much prefer classes where we can discuss things and say to a singer: “that part of what you do works really well” or “this bewilders or confuses me, so let’s explore that”. In a competition there is a bit more pressure and we already have a lot of pressure in our lives. I want our young artists to feel as little pressure as possible.’

Nonetheless, the Young Artist Platform is an audition. What does Williams look for in a lied-duo? ‘There’s this show on television called “The X-factor”. It has that name because none of us can put a finger on exactly what it is we’re looking for. We know instinctively when we see it, though. So, I’m looking for that X-factor, for someone who sings with an honesty that touches me. That can manifest itself in so many ways! Audiences intuitively react to it as well. It’s not necessarily about having an extraordinary, beautiful voice. You can get very far by having a superb voice, but if you haven’t found your honesty yet, you haven’t found your X-factor. I really falls to people like me, and all who teach in Zeist, to try and unlock someone’s X-factor if they haven’t been able to find it for themselves yet.’

Building collegial friendships
Which brings the conversation back to his love of teaching and nurturing young musicians for the time he has them under his wings. ‘If a singer would come to me and ask what the “correct way” is, I tell them there is no correct way. I wish to bring them the idea they can listen and trust their instincts. These singers and pianists arrive in Zeist already with some solid experience and technique, or they wouldn’t have reached this far. They are well on their way, and it is up to people like me to let them know that the next stage of success is within their grasp. It brings an air of normalcy to remind them that an experienced recitalist is also a human being like themselves. I want them to know that what I say is offered as a colleague. It can be quite useful to work alongside people who are further down their careers and spend time together. The great thing about a festival like Zeist is that you can build trust when spending time together and a sense of trust amongst the audience; young musicians can feel that the audience is essentially on their side. And’, he emphasises, ‘it’s valuable acknowledging that continuing in their efforts is worth it, because their performance is giving people so much pleasure.’

Taking risks and fly
Besides being many-ways, development is also a bumpy road: ‘Everyone knows as well as I do you can see a young musician taking the long way round and you wish to help them by saying: try to avoid this or that. But often we made similar mistakes when we were their age! I even take issue with the word mistake. Maybe it’s just done differently’, he adds with a smile. ‘I see young singers making different decisions to the ones I would have made and think: “that’s interesting” – not wrong, just different. I love helping them to discover more about what they can do, to explore different choices, to help them broaden their horizons so they can see there is an infinite way of doings things.’ And to err is only human: ‘Like I said before, I’m not some sort of superior being. I’ve gone wrong all over the world; it is part of a live performance. I’ve learned how to cope in the moment on stage and afterwards. But it is in taking risks that you find your boundaries. When you can take off your “baby wings” in a recital and start truly flying, then that’s when it becomes really exciting and to be able to do that you have to be comfortable in failure.’

Putting the performer at the centre
Being a singer and composer, Williams is a versatile artist and was asked to write the compulsory song for the Young Artist Platform. To him composing is not that separate from being a musician: ‘When people ask what I do, saying I am a musician covers it all. Composing this particular song, specifically for young singers and pianists, will be a way for me to explore the expression of poetry, a way to explore how young musicians can express poetry in a musical way. In a sense I’ll be doing that in the classes too, with the words and music of someone else.’ To Williams the process is part of the same nurturing as is his teaching: ‘I’m keen on giving the performers room to invest of themselves in the song. Some truly genius song composers are incredibly particular about how they want their music to be performed. I respect that enormously, but that's not me. For example, I recently wrote an unaccompanied piece for the students of the Royal Academy of Music where the students have an immense freedom to make it their own. I specifically wrote it in three different keys, but also said: you can start at any note and pitch the intervals from there. And there were no bar lines, so they are in control of how fast or slow any note is in relation to the next one. As a performer I like putting the performer at the centre of the composing experience too.’ The moment Williams realizes he will hear six renditions of his work, he acclaims: ‘Fantastic! I am used to have a piece sung once, but to have six performances is exciting.’

Exploring courtly love with song
Exploring new ways of telling well-known stories is also what lies beneath his recital on May 18, with Roger Vignoles. ‘Henk Neven and Hans Eijsackers invited us to come up with a programme about courtly love. It so happened that the piece that came to my mind as the best exponent was Brahm’s Die schöne Magelone but oops … we performed that at Zeist already in 2022! So, we devised a programme that explores this romanticized perception of love in a range of different songs. As I was cherry-picking some of my favourites, songs that would sit well together, I began to assemble three different programmes: one in English, one in French and one in German. I couldn’t lose two of them and do the third, so I ended up putting all three together. Now we have a programme of three “halves” that examines the subject in all three languages with a selection of songs and poetry from each of these countries.’ Because recital programmes take a lot of time to put together, Williams hopes to be able to sing Knights and Legends in the United Kingdom too: ‘It’s unfortunate timing to have to present multiple programmes during the same period. Sure, I like to push myself and to keep exploring, adding new material to my repertoire. But the best thing is when one is invited to do a recital programme more than once. I can find more depth with each repetition so that it eventually feels like putting on a comfortable suit.’

Art song is for everyone
Speaking of which, he would like song lovers and new audiences to feel art song is meant for everyone: ‘I’m going down a small rabbit hole here, but for me as a singer it is interesting how music streaming channels choose their repertoire. If there is classical music on, the algorithms tend to select symphonies, string quartets and abstract music mostly. There’s hardly any music with singers, and if there is it might be the most famous opera arias, often in an instrumental transcription. There seems to be something about the human voice that is distracting to people when half-listening to music. Perhaps they might find sung works intimidating in some way because they are addressed directly or because of a language problem. This is why Jeremy Sams’ translations of Schubert songs have been so useful to me personally because they enabled me to bring Schubert to English-speaking audiences who may not have encountered or properly understood them before. Being a language that isn’t so frequently taught in Britain, singing in German can put up a barrier to some who might instinctively think: that’s not for me. Singing in their own language removes that barrier and hopefully they can begin to explore the repertoire and love it as much as I do. Then later maybe they will be drawn to the original language to hear where it comes from. I am very grateful for the song enthusiasts who already know about it and are immensely supportive. We rely on them, we love them. But I and the pianists I work with are, as you can tell, passionate about art song. We love sharing it with others. So, we are always looking out to include the widest range of audiences possible and say: this belongs to you too.’

Text: Dees Wilgehof-Sodaar

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