Celebrations spanning the world but with their heart in Suffolk
- Credit: Archant
The Aldeburgh Festival has always been one of the major cornerstones of Suffolk’s cultural calendar but this year is always going to be special, with Benjamin Britten’s centenary celebrations forming the focus of this year’s event.
The work of Britten has always formed an important strand of the festival he founded, but it has also been an important platform for some of our leading contemporary composers to showcase new work.
This year the Aldeburgh Festival will be combining both elements in an effort to honour not only Britten the composer but also Britten the music lover: the man who founded a small-scale festival in Suffolk in June, 1948, that went on to become one of the world’s leading arts events.
This year’s festival not only offers audiences an unprecedented number of performances of Britten’s works but will also stage a number of specially commissioned works from modern-day composers inspired by Britten himself or the world in which he lived and worked.
The highlight of this year’s landmark festival will be a series of performances of Britten’s masterwork Peter Grimes – the groundbreaking opera inspired by his adopted hometown of Aldeburgh but never staged here until now.
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A concert version of the opera will open the festival at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall on June 7, before the performers move to Aldeburgh beach for a fully-staged performance on June 17, 19 and 21.
There will also be an immersive theatrical experience staged by Punchdrunk Theatre Company called The Borough. Individual audience members will be taken around the old Suffolk fishing community to experience the world described in George Crabbe’s poem which in turn inspired Peter Grimes.
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Jonathan Reekie, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music, said that this year’s festival was part of a global celebration of Britten’s music but brought the focus back right to the heart of Suffolk which inspired so much of Britten’s work.
He said Aldeburgh Music looked after the performance side of Britten’s legacy – including the music education work which Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, initiated – while the Britten-Pears Foundation maintained the archive and research into Britten’s life and work.
He said that, as things stand, there will be 2,000 events staged in 39 countries, including events in Palestine, Bejing, and Rio de Janeiro. “So this celebration is really stretching to the far corners of the Earth. It’s very exciting but we like to think that Aldeburgh is the focus.
“Arts Council England have invested £1 million into making this a very special event for 2013, with the objective of reaching many more people – both audiences and participants – and also ensuring that the UK and the Suffolk coast remains an important cultural destination.”
The extent of the centenary celebrations is reflected in the fact that Britten will be the first composer to be commemorated on a £1 coin, as well as appearing on a stamp, and Adnams brewery will be creating a special beer, called Native Britten, to mark the anniversary of Britten’s birth.
“It is right that Britten’s music is central to the festival but it is also right that here in Suffolk the focus is on his wider legacy.
“Aldeburgh Music has come up with a centenary programme that falls into three headings –inspired by Britten, Britten and the Community, and Britten and his relationship with Suffolk.”
He said that Britten remains a hugely inspirational figure within the music and the wider arts community.
Britten as an composer was unusual in that he collaborated with a wide variety of other artists from different art forms – he had close links with literature, he worked in film, he worked in dance, he collaborated with visual artists and, of course, his “baby”, The Aldeburgh Festival, wasn’t just a festival of music it was a celebration of music and the arts.
“He brought in artists from across all art-forms, so our Inspired By Britten series consists of over 50 commissions and many of them are in music, but some of them are in musical forms which you might not expect.
“Some are jazz commissions. We have a folk musician called John Boden writing a commission. There is a huge number of visual artists creating works inspired by Britten. So there’s a huge range of activity which reflects that Britten was a musician who was interested in other art forms, but it also illustrates his wider cultural relevance. He’s not just a composer who is just enjoyed by a few aficionados who know about his music – he is somebody who has a wider cultural resonance.”
He said the second theme of the festival was Britten and the community. The community and music in the community were very important to Britten’s outlook on the world.
In 1968 Benjamin Britten wrote: “I believe that an artist should be part of his community, should work for it, with it and be used by it.”
Jonathan said that the quote represented a central facet of his philosophy. At the first concert of the first Aldeburgh Festival they performed the premiere of St Nicholas, which employed children alongside a professional orchestra and singers. It also included audience participation.
Jonathan said: “I think that was an important reflection of the man and the kind of music and the kind of festival – and musical life – that he wanted to be part of on the Suffolk coast.
“Also, it must be remembered that Britten wrote some of the most popular and enduring music for young people, and I think that The Young People’s Guide To An Orchestra is still internationally known as one of the great works and Noye’s Fludde is still performed all around the world. I think this year it is being performed in Beijing.
“So much of his music for children will be featured here this year. We will be doing a production of Noye’s Fludde with 120 young people, in Lowestoft, where Britten was born, around the centenary itself in November.”
Young people are also being involved in a series of Herring Feasts which will be staged across Suffolk throughout the summer – a direct reference to the feast scene in Albert Herring, which received one of its first performances at the first Aldeburgh Festival.
The biggest project involving young people is Friday Afternoons – a nationwide singing event which will be realised on Britten’s birthday.
“It’s the biggest project but based on a very simple idea. Britten wrote 12 songs for children in the 1930s and these songs were called Friday Afternoons. His brother was a headmaster and he wrote them for his brother’s school because they had singing on a Friday afternoon.
“It so happens that Britten’s 100th anniversary is on Friday, November 22, so we had the very simple idea that on that day we would get as many children as possible to sing all or as many of the Friday Afternoon songs as we could.
“It was originally conceived as a project that was going to take place in Suffolk, and perhaps Norfolk, but very quickly everybody we talked to about it became really interested and said ‘We want to take part’. So we set up a website and we put on anything that any school needs to take part in this project.
“There are examples of all the songs, there are teacher materials and the interest in this project has just mushroomed.
“Over the last nine months we have been promoting this around the UK with Arts Council involvement and now we have got literally hundreds of partners around the country.
“We have no way of knowing how many children will take part; we think, conservatively, something in the region of 100,000 within the UK and recently there has been a lot of interest from abroad. So we could have young people singing all round the world.”
In contrast to the global nature of some of the celebrations, the Aldeburgh Festival was in the perfect position to explore Britten and his relationship with Suffolk.
“It is very unusual that an artist is born in a place and then essentially remains there and lives and works there for most of their creative life.
“He lived and worked in Suffolk for all but six or seven years of his life and the landscape, the seascape and the elemental nature of life here shaped him both as a man and a musician. It was a huge influence on his creative output.”
In 1964 Britten wrote: “My music now has its roots in where I live and work.” Jonathan said that quote provided the basis for their whole outlook on the Britten centenary.
“We looked at the fact that Britten would be celebrated around the world and asked ourselves: ‘What can we do that will be different? What can we do that no-one else can do?’
“Of course, the answer was simple: we would celebrate Britten and his relationship with Suffolk.”
He said that the heart of their celebrations would focus on particular works written for specific locations, including The Church Parables, which was written for Orford Church, Death In Venice in November, which was written for the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, but the biggest part of this is the Peter Grimes project.
He said that, of all Britten’s works, Peter Grimes is the most-associated with Aldeburgh. The opera is set in the town and uses real locations. Aldeburgh beach has been recreated on the stages of opera houses throughout the world.
“But, paradoxically, Peter Grimes is too big to be staged at Snape Maltings. It’s a big opera. Peter Grimes, apart from two semi-staged concert performances in the year 2000, has hardly been heard in Suffolk.
“So, because we can’t just put it on in an opera house, we are having to do it a bit differently. We are opening the festival with concert performances of Peter Grimes at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, so audiences can experience Britten’s masterwork in its purest musical form. The performers will be accompanied by the Britten-Pears Orchestra, which is part of the Britten-Pears Young Artists programme. They are all young, emerging, professional musicians and the conductor is Steuart Bedford, who has long been associated with Benjamin Britten and assisted Britten with a number of projects later on in Britten’s life.
“The second element is Grimes on the Beach, which is being directed by renowned opera director Tim Albery, who first directed Peter Grimes 30 years ago.”
He said the opera will be staged on Aldeburgh beach on a specially-constructed raised jetty which would be adorned with fishing boats seemingly crashed into the structure by a great storm.
“The singers and chorus of the beach production will be the same cast that performed at the concert hall. The performance will be amplified so everyone can hear and will have professional lighting.
“The orchestra will be recorded from the performances at the Snape Maltings because putting a full orchestra on the beach is a dangerous pursuit and one we decided to avoid.”
He said that having a digital recording will give Steuart Bedford control over the music and can compensate for events in a live performance.
The third element, The Borough, has been devised by Punchdrunk theatre company and its artistic director, Felix Barrett.
Punchdrunk staged the immersive Dr Who adventure The Crash of The Elysium in Ipswich as part of the Cultural Olympiad last year.
“The Borough will take individual audience members on a walk around the town and visit four locations where certain things will happen, and there will also be incidents on the way to the various locations.
“It’s difficult to say any more without giving the game away. The idea is giving each audience member an idea of what it was like to be Peter Grimes – to be that outsider in a small community.”
Other Britten-inspired events during the festival include a new work by jazz trumpeter and composer Guy Barker, That Obscure Hurt, featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra – the commission to come up with a new piece that mirrored Britten’s ghostly operas The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave.
Aldeburgh resident and former BBC producer Humphrey Burton will be introducing a series of films he made over the years featuring Britten at work. Among the films to be screened at Aldeburgh Cinema will be Benjamin Britten and his Festival, which features colour footage of The Queen opening the rebuilt Snape Maltings Concert Hall, and The Burning Fiery Furnace, which is a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the recording sessions held at Orford a few days before the 1967 festival opened.
Suffolk author Ronald Blythe will be relating his Time By The Sea from 1956-58. He arrived on the Suffolk coast as an aspiring young author and found himself drawn into Britten’s circle, and discovered himself working for The Aldeburgh Festival.
Dance also plays a significant role in this year’s festival with Britten Dances, a series of new works inspired by Britten, and performed by The Royal Ballet and The Royal Ballet of Flanders, with music by Britten Sinfonia.
Full details of the complete programme for the 66th Aldeburgh Festival can be found at www.aldeburgh.co.uk