REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leeds Lieder Festival, Schubertiade, The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire, April 14

German soprano Nikola Hildebrand

LEEDS Lieder Festival celebrated the start of its 20th anniversary season with a Schubertiade on its opening Sunday.

The common denominator of the lunchtime and evening recitals was the German soprano Nikola Hillebrand, with festival director Joseph Middleton as her piano partner.

We were told that she was experiencing the first signs of a cold, which entailed her cutting two songs. But we would not have guessed she was in any trouble.

She switched seamlessly between the two emotions of Rückert’s Lachen Und Weinen (Laughter

And Tears) before moving to two night songs. Mayrhofer was second only to Geothe in the number of his poems set by Schubert, who always seemed to find a brighter side to the poet’s generally depressive tendencies.

The low-lying Nachtstück (Nocturne) brought out the soprano’s confidential tone and her closeness to the text of Nachtviolen (Dame’s Violets), now in C major after the former’s C minor, was the epitome of intimacy.

In Gretchens Bitte (Gretchen’s Prayer), in the version completed by Britten, she plumbed the dramatic emotions of the girl’s remorse. But always she communicated directly with us.

The first three of Mignon’s songs from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister were extremely well suited to the almost vibrato-free tone she brought to them, evoking the young teenager’s yearning. The fourth she omitted. Her sense of theatre was more than once threatened by Middleton’s quite forceful interjections, not quite what her announced vocal fragility needed.

Any such fragility vanished in Der Hirt Aus Dem Felsen (The Shepherd On The Rock), where they were joined by Oliver Casanovas Nuevo, principal clarinet of Opera North. It was impossible to believe that this was the work of a composer only a month from his death, so compellingly blithe and high-spirited was it here.

The trio blended superbly. The moment that crystallised the music’s pastoral poise was the clarinet’s mini-cadenza before the dancing finale, when Hillebrand’s carefree coloratura was effervescent.

The evening gala added the baritone of Rodney Williams and the pianist Roger Vignoles. It was dedicated to the memory of Jane Bonner, a faithful servant to Opera North for more than 40 years, latterly as company manager.

Middleton and Vignoles joined forces in the Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, D.940. It was not the tidiest account but it acted as a powerful elegy to her. Williams also comically imagined her presence as page-turner but without a shred of disrespect.

He and Vignoles opened the first lieder group, Figures In A Landscape. In the setting of Schmidt von Lübeck’s Der Wanderer, which rivalled Erlkönig for popularity during Schubert’s lifetime, Williams evoked a touching picture of alienation and Vignoles added to his plight; Ganymed provided a predictably upbeat antidote.

To Be Sung On The Water brought us Meeres Stille (Calm Sea), where Williams sustained a very steady line, without vibrato, and Auf Der Donau (On The Danube), perhaps Schubert’s most telling setting of Mayrhofer, in which we sensed the menace leading up to a spine-chilling Untergang (Destruction), totally at odds with the serene introduction.

There was a real feeling of partnership between Hillebrand and Middleton in Fischerweise (Fisherman’s Ditty), with the piano’s bass line reflecting the soprano’s smiles. Her facial features were equally important in Die Gebüsche (The Thicket), as she mirrored man’s connections with nature.

Hillebrand is a born communicator. The final group, Songs Of Night And Nature, had her sustaining a lovely line in Winterabend and finding a very personal touch in Berta’s Lied, with its sham lullaby.

Williams and Vignoles plumbed the mysteries of Nachtstück, equating sleep and death, with an astonishing intensity, but then escaping the fetters of night with a highly theatrical Waldesnacht. It was an evening packed with treasures.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff at Leeds Leider Festival 2023

Soprano Veronique Gens and pianist Susan Manoff

Leeds Lieder Festival 2023: Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff, The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire, June 13

IT is a tribute to the stature of this festival that a soprano of the international calibre of Véronique Gens should wish to perform here. Her pianist Susan Manoff has partnered several French singers on a regular basis: her credentials in the mélodie repertoire are equally impressive. A purely French recital is extremely rare in these parts; for multiple reasons this was an unmissable event.

Half of the programme was devoted to early songs by Reynaldo Hahn, all written in the 1890s before he was 25. Three came from his cycle to poems from Leconte de Lisle, Études Latines (oddly titled, since most of the subjects are Greek). Néère had the feel of a rueful lament, whereas Lydé was a grand hymn to the softening pleasures of wine. In both, the piano was a little too obtrusive. Balance was better in Tyndaris, where Gens distilled eternity from its somnolent ending.

These three crystallised a problem that surfaced all evening: where Gens was undemonstrative, barely using her arms and leaving her shapely phrasing to provide atmosphere or drama, Manoff seemed determined to share her spotlight, often raising her hands above her shoulders by way of emphasis: she should let her fingers do the talking. Balance was too often not as smooth as it might have been, with Manoff over-emphatic; the piano lid might have been better on the short stick.

At the very end, Gens delivered a mighty climax to Hahn’s Le Printemps, giving a rare glimpse of what she delivers on the operatic stage. She had clearly been harbouring her resources until then. Naturally Manoff was with her every step of the way here.

Earlier we had heard two Gounod songs, including some fine coloratura in Où Voulez-Vous Aller? and a beautifully controlled ending to De Polignac’s Lamento, hoping against hope that a dear departed will return.

The duo excitedly conjured Chausson’s butterflies and cut loose in an ecstatic account of Fauré’s love-affair between butterfly and flower. His Ispahan roses were predictably fragrant too.

But the highlight was Duparc’s exquisite setting of Baudelaire’s L’invitation au Voyage. It contained everything that makes Gens a remarkable specialist in this repertoire. She made the words melt into the melodic line, caressing rather than stressing their optimistic evocation of hazy, lazy sunshine at the end of a voyage. The firmer second stanza enhanced the anticipation. Manoff’s rippling piano made an ideal underlay. This was mélodie perfection.

Later in the festival Graham Johnson delivered a compact, highly informative lecture-recital on Schubert’s song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin. Extracts from more than a dozen songs were delivered with admirable clarity by the baritone George Robarts. Johnson accompanied these and played more examples besides, including glimpses of similarities in earlier Schubert songs.

It is fashionable to decry the poetic achievement of Wilhelm Müller in this cycle. Johnson not only demolished that argument by implication but more importantly showed how Schubert added layers of meaning to what is after all a tragic tale, the young lad drowning himself in the brook. It is doubtful whether any of his listeners will ever hear this cycle in quite the same way again.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Gus Gowland’s romantic musical Mayflies finds myriad ways to tell the same story in world premiere at York Theatre Royal

Mayflies lyricist, composer and writer Gus Gowland, seated with cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado

DO not confuse York Theatre Royal resident artist Gus Gowland’s musical premiere, Mayflies, with Peter Mackie Burns’s 2022 television drama of the same name.

“That series was based on an Andrew O’Hagan’s novel that came out in 2017, but my title is taken from an insect that’s been around since before humanity!” says Gus, whose musical tracks the romantic relationship of May and Fly from first flourish to final goodbye.

“When I started this musical, I didn’t know that the TV series would be coming out when it did, but I did then read the synopsis – and it’s very different from mine! I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d been asked to change the title as the whole point was matching the characteristics of the mayfly,” says Gus.

“It is true that predominantly mayflies live for only 24 hours but they have a gestation period that can last for two years, and that felt like a good metaphor for meeting online, then meeting in person for one night, and then the morning after.

“What happens in Mayflies is that after swiping right, left, up and down across the dating apps, May and Fly begin a tentative conversation. Over time, their romance grows into something real, something special. Then they meet!”

Watching a documentary on riverbanks triggered the musical. “I love rivers for some reason,” says composer, lyricist, songwriter and playwright Gus, who moved to York in 2019 after his partner was appointed chief executive officer of Rural Arts in Thirsk.

“Anyway, there was a section on mayflies and that’s what piqued my interest. That incubation period, which I didn’t know about before then, struck me as really interesting when we only know about the mayfly’s fleeting life, but nothing about that earlier period. I watched it last summer, so the musical has been incredibly quick in arriving.

“It would be nice if I could invest Mayflies with a longer life than a mayfly has, and it’s been brilliant for me that York Theatre Royal has had faith in me to stage this premiere as it’s so important to support new work.”

Running at the Theatre Royal from April 28 to May 13 under the direction of Tania Azevedo, the world premiere of Mayflies will feature alternating configurations of three actors performing the two roles in each performance: Nuno Queimado playing May, Emma Thornett, Fly, and Rumi Sutton either May or Fly.

Another production could have a different gender balance, but however it plays, each pairing is designed to give a different perspective on the relationships within this contemporary love story.

“I was really excited by the challenge of writing something that could be played by pretty much anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality,” says Gus. 

“As an audience, we bring so much of ourselves and our understanding of the world to the things we see, so I wanted to explore what happens when we see the exact same love story told by different people – how would the dynamics change? Which moments would hit harder in each telling?

Mayflies designer T K Hay, left, musical director Joseph Church, cast members Nuno Queimado, Emma Thornett and Rumi Sutton, director Tania Azevedo and composer Gus Gowland at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“I know how much an actor brings to a role too and so I wanted to create people that the actors cast would be able to really imbue with their own sense of identity. We’ve seen some rotating casts before, but I really wanted to write the flexibility of casting into the material, rather than just have it as a production idea layered on top.”

Gus continues: “It’s a real challenge to avoid signifiers of characteristics, like age and gender, but I’ve adored finding ways to create rounded specific characters without those to lean back on. One way I’ve done that is to write the parts in different time signatures, which makes them musically very distinct.

“I’m over the moon with the extraordinary cast of actors we have for this first ever production of Mayflies and am so excited to see what they each bring to the characters.”

Gus, who lectures on the post-graduate musical theatre course at Leeds Conservatoire, has a two-year residency at York Theatre Royal, where his songs have been heard already in showcases for professional York talent.

For 2021’s Love Bites, he wrote a song for diarist Anne Lister (alias Gentleman Jack), performed by Dora Rubinstein, and for 2022’s Green Shoots, he used James Herriot quotes for I’ll Go T’Other, a song about the vet and his relationship with North Yorkshire, performed by Joe Douglass.

Settled into the city – he and his partner have bought a house here – Gus is aware of York’s love of musicals, whether staged by York companies or brought to the city on tour. “Mayflies’ Theatre Royal run is sandwiched between Strictly Ballroom and Heathers at the Grand Opera House: there is so much musical theatre staged here, so for me to have the opportunity to start a new musical’s life here is wonderful.

“So many people want to make their life is musical theatre, and it’s good for them to see that they don’t always have to go to London to be involved. There are theatres making musical theatre elsewhere.”

Brought up on watching Disney hits and classical musicals such as Kiss Me Kate, Gus had a love of musical theatre from the age of five, becoming obsessed with it, he says, whether Les Miserables or hearing the voices of Ruthie Henshall, Lea Salonga and Michael Ball.

“I just think it’s the best way to tell a story, though I know it’s certainly more complicated to get musical shows on because there are definitely more moving parts. They take more time to put on, which is the main challenge,” he says.

As with Gus’s Pieces Of String, winner of the 2018 Stage Debut Award for Best Composer or Lyricist and the UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production for its Mercury Theatre, Colchester premiere, Mayflies has a book, lyrics and music by Gowland, a self-taught musician who composes on the piano.

“What’s rare is that both my main-house shows have been completely original, coming out of my brain and heart, rather than being an adaptation, where I’m more likely to be collaborative,” he says.

Gus had trained to be a classical actor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “I didn’t do many musicals there, but I did write two songs for a new show called Spoon River that we did as our third-year show based on a book of poems from the late 1800s, where every poem told a person’s life story,” he recalls.

Mayflies composer Gus Gowland and director Tania Azevedo

“I did quite a lot of concert singing but I didn’t look after my voice, which I would have needed to do for musical theatre.”

Gus duly decided to focus on musical theatre writing after focusing initially on acting, going on to study for an MA in musical theatre writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, and latterly a PhD in musical theatre, specifically looking at gay representation in the artform, using Pieces Of String as part of his studies.

As for his style of musicals, Gus says: “Being an actor, I’m familiar with text and though I love sung-through musicals, like Rent or Les Miserables, I consider myself more of a dramatist or storyteller. I like songs to be ‘real moments’ and I like them to be moments of transition in the story, with ten songs in all in Mayflies.”

He divides Mayflies into three stages, matching the life arc of the mayfly: Nymph online, Dun for the night together in a hotel room and Spinner for the morning after, but be warned, the story’s path is not chronological.

“We jump from one to another at a moment’s notice, with a lighting change or a sound effect. What’s interesting is people being different versions of themselves at different times, when the safety net of separate spaces is taken away in moving from online to in-person,” says Gus.

“We are contrary creatures, so we’ll say things that are the opposite of what we said before; sometimes that’s intentional, sometimes it’s because you’ve forgotten what you said, but for the other person it might have been memorable.

“In Pieces Of String I had two time frames, and now what I get to do in Mayflies is show whether someone said something or not and whether they meant it or not, and by being really free in the casting, over gender, age and race, I let audiences play with their own assumptions, because we assume things when we see people of a certain age or sexuality.

“The dynamics between each pairing can be totally different in its compact with a song taking on a different meaning, depending on who is singing it. Using different time registers for each character, which I’ve never done before, it’s interesting to see how different it makes them sound too. It’s all part of what I want to do, to really push myself as a writer.”

Gus is picking up Pieces Of String once more this year with a view to its further development. “I started writing it in 2011 as part of my MA and then developed it over many years before premiering it at Colchester in 2018 after the Mercury Theatre came to one of the workshops and decided to take it on.

“Now it’s being optioned by Global Music, who produced SIX The Musical, and by Alchemation in America, so I’ve done a new draft, making changes from the premiere. It could have happened sooner but for finishing my PhD and the pandemic, but we’ve now done a reading of it at the Vaudeville Theatre [in London] in January.”

How long is Pieces Of String’s future? Wait and see!

York Theatre Royal presents Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, April 28 to May 13, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Gary Stewart parades themes & skills old & new on Lost, Now Found lockdown album

Gary Stewart: Fortified at forty

IN the week when Gary Stewart turns 40, the Easingwold singer-songwriter has released his lockdown album, Lost, Now Found.

“The album was recorded at home and is pretty much all me, with the exception of a few musical friends, like Rosie Doonan, Ross Ainslie and Mikey Kenney,” says the left-handed guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, whose birthday was on Monday.

“Especially with this album, when you finish a recording, there’s that culture, that thing, where you always think it’s the best you’ve done, but I really do, because I had the time,” says Gary.

“The difficulty is that normally I don’t give myself time to write songs because I’m always doing other things, but I think I’ve tended to use that as an excuse before, but that couldn’t be an excuse this time.”

Before Covid-19 became the invisible enemy in March last year, Gary’s diary would be filled with such commitments as playing drums for Leeds band Hope & Social and guitar for Rosie Doonan; alternating the drummer’s seat for eight years in the Harrogate Theatre pantomime orchestra pit; hosting the Greenwich Village-inspired Gaslight Club acoustic hootenanny gigs at Oporto!, in Call Lane, Leeds, and fronting a seven-piece covers band, touring the UK with Graceland: A Celebration of Paul Simon’s Classic.

“In lockdown, I could give myself to writing after quite a hiatus from doing that. Suddenly, you have all this time and you can either squander it or you can try to use it productively, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be productive,” he says.

Perthshire-born Scotsman Gary had cut his teeth performing on the Leeds music scene for ten years before moving to Easingwold. Writing songs in the folk/pop vein, and influenced by the major singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s – Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and assorted members of The Eagles – he had released three albums and two EPs to date.

“The last album came out in November 2018, but I didn’t really give it the push it deserved, probably because there were other things going on, though I did have a launch night at The Crescent [in York],” he says.

Lost, Now Found emerged over a burst of song-writing between April and June 2020, ten compositions completed in “lightning time” by his own standards. “I started with a song, Leopard, that had been kicking around my head and notebook for 18 months or so, with a verse and chorus,” says Gary.

Gary Stewart performing at A Night To Remember at York Barbican. Picture courtesy of Ian Donaghy

“As a self-confessed professional procrastinator, my fear was that I wouldn’t stick with it or even bother to give myself a fighting chance, but thankfully I managed to finish it, and I thought, ‘let’s try to expand how I write, moving on from the usual four chords’.

“My girlfriend is a big Beatles fan and that kind of influenced my writing. For me, when I’m writing an album, I always think, ‘what would interest me as a listener?’, while trying to write each sing in a different key, though I didn’t quite manage it in end!”

“Technophobe” Gary ventured into the realm of D.I.Y. musician for Lost, Now Found, playing, recording, mixing and producing the album as a solo work.

“I thought, ‘I may as well spend time learning the technicalities of recording, learning how to use software of industry standard,” he recalls. “Arts Council England enticed me with its Developing Creative Practice fund, so I applied, got the funding, and that helped me to buy a laptop, an interface and a couple of really nice microphones,” he says. “This in turn led me down the rabbit-hole and into the Wonderland of home-recording.”

The next two months were spent learning a new trade on-the-go while recording the ten new songs. “It was a really interesting process, as I didn’t have to worry about playing on the songs because I can play what I need to a reasonable standard,” says Gary, who studied orchestral percussion at Leeds College of Music from 1999 and lived the big-city life until relocating to Easingwold in 2014.

“I’ve played for such a long time, I’m like a magpie, or a musical carpetbagger, picking up different things to play, like the guitar when I was 14/15.

“What was great this time was being able to get the sound I wanted, and all those things make me feel it’s the best album I’ve done: the recordings are good, the sound is excellent.”

Multi-instrumentalist Gary has enlisted the help of a handful of musician friends to “add colour” to assorted songs. Rosie Doonan, who has worked with Peter Gabriel, duets with Stewart on Hot To Trot, Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja and Lost, Now Found, and Mikey Kenney, from Band Of Burns, lends string arrangements to Rainy Day Lover and Sailors And Tailors.

Ruth Varela‘s artwork for Gary Stewart’s Lost, Now Found lockdown album

BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner Ross Ainslie, from Treacherous Orchestra and Salsa Celtica, plays whistle on Front Lines, while Sam Lawrence and James Hamilton contribute woodwind and brass respectively to the opening track, Tailspin. “Under the pandemic restrictions, we couldn’t meet up, but I was able to send the tracks to them record their parts,” says Gary.

Lost, Now Found captures the sound and feel of a 1970s’ era singer/songwriter record. “My D.I.Y. approach to recording, coupled with my musical influences, help give the album its lo-fi sonority: warm-sounding acoustic guitars and drums; plate reverb vocals, and instruments captured as naturally as possible, with very little effect,” says Gary. “Think Tapestry meets Tea For The Tillerman.”

Stylistically, the album embraces 1960s and 1970s’ artists alongside more contemporary folk/pop luminaries: The Beach Boys’ drums and vocal-harmony influence are apparent on Hot To Trot and Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja; John Martyn and Nick Drake bounce off each other in Tailspin; lead single Leopard has a Villagers vibe, while the plaintive feel of Still Crazy-era Paul Simon is present on Rainy Day Lover, Sadder Day Song and the title track.

“These are ten songs that I’m really proud of,” says Gary. “Songs that deal with themes I constantly return to, consciously or sub-consciously: fabrics of my character that I’d like to change (Leopard and Chest); procrastination (Hot To Trot) and redemption, coupled with new beginnings (Tailspin) and straight-up love songs (Rainy Day Lover, Sadder Day Song and Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja) – songwriters just can’t get away from writing love songs!”

Inevitably, too, there are songs woven more indelibly and intertwined with the time and circumstances wherein they were written: family loss, both physical and mental, for Sailors And Tailors and Lost, Now Found and the triumph over adversity of the NHS for Front Lines.

“Some songs came really quickly, like Front Lines, which came from a conversation with my percussionist, who’s a paramedic, and told me of paramedics being put on the phone to speak with cancer patients who couldn’t be treated during the pandemic.”

This summer marks Gary’s return to performing, kicking off with Gary Stewart’s Folk Club from 7.30pm to 10pm on July 3, replacing the Silent Disco that has now aptly fallen silent that evening in the open-air setting of At The Mill, in Stillington, near York (box office:

“It will be a very special, one off, folk club: part folk night, part headline gig, with an eclectic mix of acts and then me doing a set,” says Gary.

Gary Stewart’s poster for his Graceland shows. The Crescent, in York, awaits on September 18

As At The Mill’s Alexander Wright explains: “The first half will work like a traditional folk night. Hosted by Gary, people in attendance are given the opportunity to play and share – music, stories, songs or poems. If you want to share something, then bring your instrument and your voice and we’ll see you there!

“The second half of the evening sees Gary take to the stage for a headline set. We can’t wait for Gary Stewart’s Folk Club. We love a folk night – and we really look forward to seeing and hearing all the wonderful things you bring to share!”

Gary will be in solo mode on the July 31 bill for Meadowfest, Malton’s boutique midsummer music festival, headlined by Lightning Seeds (box office:

In The Crescent’s diary are two gigs: Gary’s Paul Simon show, Graceland, on September 18 , with tickets on sale at £12.50 at, plus he will be back on drums there for Hope & Social on October 12, newly rearranged from July 16.

Even in such strange times, Gary Stewart is living out a young Scotsman’s vow to himself. “I consciously made the decision that I was going to make music, as even if I didn’t make a lot of money, I’d still want to make music because that’s the win of it,” he says. “I’ll always work hard at it, though sometimes I could be more proactive!”

More proactive?  The multi-tasking new album, the diverse live performances, would suggest otherwise, Gary.

Gary Stewart’s Lost, Now Found was released on June 14 on CD, 12 vinyl and download.

Just how multi-instrumentalist is multi-tasking Gary Stewart?

ON Lost, Now Found, he contributes vocals, backing vocals, acoustic guitar, hi-string guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, keys, xylophone, glockenspiel, congas, bongos, shakers, triangle, tambourine, finger cymbals, temple blocks and…thighs. Oh, and he recorded, mixed and produced the album.