Originally held only every three years, the Ludlow English Song Weekend goes annual this year. Set up by the Finzi Friends, the event has expanded to reflect the full extent of English song repertoire, works mingling from across the centuries.
Among the cream of young UK singers showcased by artistic director Iain Burnside is the mezzo-soprano Bethan Langford, born in Much Wenlock and educated at Bridgnorth Endowed School. Bethan is carving out a glittering career for herself, despite being visually impaired, and she tells me how she has surmounted this disability.
“I was lucky enough at school to have an incredibly supportive network of teachers and friends (particularly my music teacher and SEN teacher, whose daughter happened to be my best friend!) who encouraged me to pursue singing as a career by auditioning for music college.
“I think I was a bit sheltered by that support though, as I’ve had to learn over the years to be assertive when it comes to my needs – something that generally doesn’t come very easy to me. I’m lucky to have a disability that doesn’t affect my life too much in that I’m able to be independent, but that also means that sometimes people forget that it exists.
“I’m often asked if I ‘can cope’ when given music that is too small for me to read, or when I can’t see the conductor from where I’m standing, and that’s where I’ve had to learn to be more vocal about my disability. I found that if I wasn’t clearly communicating my requirements, I would come home with very bad headaches or would be unhappy with my work or nervous about the performance. So it just seemed the most professional thing to do to be clear about my visual impairment from the off and always communicate if there is a problem.
“I have found that individuals and companies are so accepting and accommodating of my needs, which is great. I do take some time to myself when first going on to a new opera set to make myself comfortable in the space and make myself aware of any problem areas.
“For example, I am completely blind in my left eye, and for one recent production the conductor and orchestra were positioned to the left of the stage which posed quite a significant challenge, but it’s just something that I have to take into account with my work – such as being really tall on a small set! I’m still learning about all this though, and definitely do look back sometimes and think ‘that wasn’t the best way to deal with that’.
“Generally, people want to help, and I’m lucky to have a great relationship with my singing teacher who is also my mentor really, and she is someone I always go to if I’m struggling with something.
I’m still finding my way with being a freelancer with a visual impairment – this obviously has its challenges as I’m not in a day-to-day workplace who knows my requirements, so it still can be quite stressful and time-consuming. Luckily I have support from the RNIB which runs specific training days for visually impaired and blind musicians. It’s nice to know you’re not alone.”
Bethan appears in a free Family Concert at St Laurence’s Church (where A.E.Housman, whose poetry-cycle ‘A Shropshire Lad’ is the inspiration for so much English song, is buried) on Sunday afternoon, tripping over to the comfortable and welcoming Ludlow Assembly Rooms immediately afterwards for the weekend’s concluding recital. In this exploration of childhood seen through the eyes of many composers including Britten, Howells, Buxton Orr and Stephen Hough (a polymath not only in music) she is joined by tenor Nicky Spence and baritone Gareth Brynmor John.
The Weekend’s opening recital is tomorrow evening in St Laurence’s, when the much-loved baritone Roderick Williams (who has composed some Housman settings himself) is accompanied by Iain Burnside in a programme of songs by Somervell, Bennett and Finzi.
Iain is proud of the fact that the weekend’s programme features no fewer than 11 living composers, as well as some offerings from the past whose dust has had to have been blown off them, and whose quaintness puts other settings into happier perspectives.
Around the recitals, Iain has also assembled a variety of speakers and discussions exploring the literature and landscape inspiring this outpouring of English song. Among the panellists is Peter Parker, author of Housman Country, a fascinating investigation of how A Shropshire Lad has permeated English life and culture for over a century, joining the Weekend’s chair, Katy Hamilton, on Saturday morning in an exploration of Housman settings “Beyond Wenlock Edge”.
But let’s end by returning to Bethan Langford and the freshness of her enthusiasm. “I’m really excited to be part of the Ludlow English Song Weekend, a rare chance to perform near my home. I’m sure my family will appreciate the short journey to the concert for once!”
* The Ludlow English Song Weekend runs from tomorrow until Sunday. All details on 01584 878141.
* Saturday May 20: City of Birmingham organist Thomas Trotter gives a recital at St John’s Church, Hagley Hall (7.30pm)
* Saturday May 20: The music of composer Liz Johnson is showcased at the CBSO Centre, Berkley Street (7.30pm).