Burton pioneers Mozart birthday festival

Humphrey Burton, the architect of modern arts television, has opened up the Snape Maltings Concert Hall for the first time in January in order to celebrate the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

By Andrew Clarke

Humphrey Burton, the architect of modern arts television, has opened up the Snape Maltings Concert Hall for the first time in January in order to celebrate the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found out what started out as one concert has now grown into a three month multi-media festival.

Having conducted The Philharmonia Orchestra and five leading choirs at the Royal Albert Hall, you would think that conducting at the Snape Maltings would be a walk in the park for former-BBC producer Humphrey Burton, but the guiding force behind such arts programmes such as Arena and Aquarius admits that his knees are knocking “quite audibly”.

He will also be performing in the Jubilee Hall tomorrow evening and finds the thought of playing Britten's own piano quite daunting. “It's a big psychological hurdle - to be playing Britten's own piano. I have been up to The Red House to practise on it, just to get the feel of it.”

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Still, showbiz lore suggests that tangible nerves are often very good for performance and Humphrey Burton is no stranger to the world of broadcasting and classical music.

He was the face of classical music on both the BBC and London Weekend Television pioneering such long-running arts programmes as Arena and Aquarius as well as creating the annual Young Musician of the Year contest. Before joining the BBC, he read music and history at Cambridge where he conducted the University Music Club choir.

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Humphrey said that originally he wanted to be a musician and conductor himself but he recognised that while he loved music he didn't have the talent it required to make the very top flight of the profession which where he wanted to be. “Sadly I gave up music because I didn't think I was a good enough pianist or composer," he laments shaking his head I switched my degree.”

But he has retained his love of music and has teamed up with Aldeburgh Productions to come up with a season of concerts and film screenings to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. Entitled Amadeus at Aldeburgh, the season begins tonight at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall with a gala concert called 250 Years Old Today.

The concert will feature clarinettist Emma Johnson, pianist Christian Blackshaw, the Endellion String Quartet and the specially formed Aldeburgh Mozart Singers. The performance will collect together short choral works from Mozart's childhood, teens and final weeks, the majestic Clarinet Quintet, the C minor Fantasy for piano, and the 12th Piano Concerto in the version for string quartet and piano.

The Aldeburgh Mozart Singers will be conducted by Humphrey Burton who will also be providing a linking narrative between the works will be Humphrey Burton, reading extracts from the fascinating exchange of letters between Wolfgang and his father Leopold.

The festival feel will be enhanced still further by a pre-show talk by Cambridge surgeon Dr Milo Keynes who will examine Mozart's medical history and looks at what might have killed the musical genius. This talk will contrast with a film screening at Aldeburgh Cinema tomorrow morning when composer James McConnell looks at the subject matter in a film called What Made Mozart Tic? And they both come to different conclusions.

This afternoon Aldeburgh Cinema is also offering a unique cinema screening of the recent Channel Five series In Search of Mozart at 2pm.

Humphrey Burton said that it was his friendship with pianist Christian Blackshaw that provided the springboard for three month event. “I love Christian's playing and I think he might be rather under valued by the music loving public and I thought it would be a wonderful idea to showcase his talents as part of a bigger event to mark the milestone of Mozart's 250th birthday. I have a little bit of the impresario in me having programmed an Arts At The Barbican programme and I thought what I would do would be hire the Snape Maltings Concert Hall and put on a celebratory concert.

“But when I approached Aldeburgh Productions they were so taken with the idea that they decided to take on the project, which was fantastic for me because it meant that they assumed the financial risk, but they also expanded my original idea of doing one show into a whole series of performances and of course it means that the full weight of their marketing department gets behind it and it becomes a much bigger proposition and will now run until April.”

He said that the multi-media nature of the event adds to the festival feel of the venture. “It's great because it means that we get a real feel for the man as well as being able to enjoy his marvellous music. We know much more about Mozart than any of his contemporaries because he was such a dedicated letter writer and we are able to exploit this wealth of information to form a wonderful portrait of the man.

“I shall be using letters that he wrote to his father to link the programme at the Snape Maltings and what emerges is the fact that Wolfgang had quite a colourful personality. He loved the dressing up and the life of the court and the rituals of performance. In modern terms you could say there was a gay side to him and yet he was great lover of women.

“We are hoping to have Peter Schaffer come down soon and introduce the director's cut of the feature film Amadeus which we hope will link in with James McConnell's film and Dr Milo Keynes talk because it appears that Mozart was suffering from something called Tourette's Syndrome which would account for his outlandish behaviour and his lapses of bad taste. It is something that Peter Schaffer hints at in his play and in the Milos Forman film. We hope that if Peter can make it, he will be able to expand on this side of Mozart's life.”

He said it has been a huge thrill putting the programme together with Aldeburgh Productions. “It's rather special that we have been able to put a film programme together to complement the music. Because I have contacts in the business, it's not been too difficult to track down prints of the various documentaries and get permission to screen them. The only one that really slipped through our fingers has been Ingmar Bergman's film of The Magic Flute which no-one seems to own the rights to. I've drawn a complete blank on that one. It's a beautiful film, shown on the BBC 30 years ago but now it's completely disappeared.”

He said that it had taken about seven months to pull everything together. “The lovely thing is that everyone I have approached to take part has immediately agreed which is a lovely thing to happen.”

Tomorrow's event An Aldeburgh Mozartiade at the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh brings together local performers for an informal, community salute to the great man, including the Gainsborough Quartet; Tom Raskin (tenor); Andrew Plant (piano); Cal Fell (piano and violin); John Mosesson (flute) and Larissa Blackshaw (soprano) and it will be at this event that Humphrey Burton will be playing Benjamin Britten's paino.

The evening's programme will include Mozart's Divertimento K136; Il Mio Tesoro from Don Giovanni; Piano Duet Sonata in B flat; Pamina's Aria from The Magic Flute Ach ich fuehl's; Aria from Figaro Voi che sapete; Aria from Idomeneo; Flute Quartet in D K285; and the last movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

“It's a huge thing for me, playing Britten's piano - the same piano I filmed him playing all those years ago. It's going to be a very special evening.”

Then over four Sundays from January to April, (January 29, February 26, March 12 and April 2), pianist Christian Blackshaw will perform all 18 of Mozart's piano sonatas.

“The sonatas embody all that is magnificent about Mozart's music - grace, sophistication, vivacity and emotional depth - and span a 14-year period, the first dating from 1775 and the last from July 1789. This is Christian Blackshaw's first complete sonata cycle for a decade, when he last performed them to great acclaim at London's Wigmore Hall.”

Humphrey said that he will give an introduction to each concert in this series at the Jubilee Hall and he is thrilled that the Britten-Pears Library at The Red House in Aldeburgh has agreed to loan Britten's much-loved Steinway grand piano for the performances.

Talking to him for even a short time makes you realise that Humphrey Burton remains as enthusiastic about music as he was when he started reading music at Cambridge University 55 years ago and he has relished the opportunity to promote music on stage and on television.

Although he started on BBC Radio in 1955, he quickly made the jump to TV in 1958 and under the guidance of his mentor Huw Weldon worked for five years on the arts magazine Monitor alongside such soon to be great cinema directors as Ken Russell and John Schlesinger.

He later supervised the development of cultural programmes for BBC2. Among the titles he and his producers pioneered were In Rehearsal, Bernstein's Symphonic Twilight Master Class, Conversations with Glenn Gould and Workshop. In 1965 he received the British Academy's top award for innovative programming. Then, in the late 1960s, Burton jumped ship to become a founder member of London Weekend Television. Between 1967 and 1975 Humphrey Burton worked as head of drama arts and music and then as editor and host of the arts magazine Aquarius. In 1970 he produced and directed the Emmy winning Beethoven's Birthday, a bi centennial tribute a project which he remains very proud of. He also produced 200 musical collaborations, over the two decades with the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. He also filmed complete cycles of symphonies by Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. He also directed many video concerts with leading conductors such as Karajan, Solti and Kleiber.

In the mid 1970s Burton returned to the BBC and from 1975 1981 he served a second term as the head of music and arts inaugurating such long running series as Arena and Young Musician of the Year.

He said that great music still gives him a thrill and Amadeus at Aldeburgh is his attempt to share his enthusiasm with others. Tickets for the concert and piano sonatas are available by calling the Aldeburgh Productions Box Office on 01728 687110. Bookings for Amadeus on Film which includes Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liasions tomorrow evening, Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni on Sunday, Amadeus on February 26 should be made at Aldeburgh Cinema on 01728 452996.

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