Gallery: Snape's musical phoenix

Next weekend sees the opening of a brand new, multi-million pound music complex at Snape.

Andrew Clarke

Next weekend sees the opening of a brand new, multi-million pound music complex at Snape. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke joined Aldeburgh Music's chief executive Jonathan Reekie for a tour of the new buildings.

It's been two years in the building and more than 30 years in the planning but Aldeburgh Music's new studio and rehearsal facilities at Snape Maltings are opening next weekend with a housewarming extravaganza.

Aldeburgh Music chief executive Jonathan Reekie said that the �16 million capital project had not only reclaimed an important Suffolk maltings but now offered the community some fantastic, state-of-the art performance and rehearsal space which will be used not only by Aldeburgh Music but will be available to hire by the public.

“They will be perfect for staging small scale concerts or recitals as well as non-musical events.” He said that the acoustics have been designed by acoustic engineers to give the very best sound and as such can also be used as recording facilities. The open weekend/house party has been designed to introduce people to the new buildings and help assimilate them into the wider community.

Next weekend a giant Ferris Wheel will dominate the Snape skyline replacing the white crane which has been such a feature of the site during the last 18 months. Jonathan said that the opening two-day party was designed to offer an eclectic mix of activities which would reflect the broad possibilities that the new buildings offered. There will be a mix of concerts and recitals, guided tours but also a farmers' market, sideshows, a display of vintage cars as well as a bungee trampoline, outdoor theatre and a motley collection of buskers.

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One of the highlights of the rolling programme of events will be a link-up with the HighTide Festival Halesworth when they play host to David Hare's performance of Berlin/Wall. There will also be a wide variety of music to provide a soundtrack to the busy weekend including performances by Afro Cuban band Mali Latino, a series of Britten Masterclasses; a performance by the Prometeo Quartet; and a virtual tour of The Sistine Chapel via a free installation Strata1/Rome in the new Jerwood Building.

The weekend finishes on a high note with the premiere of a new work by John Woolrich, the Aldeburgh Festival's associate artistic director. Local chamber choirs, community and youth choruses will be joined by the vocal virtuosos of EXAUDI, in a celebration of choral singing to mark the opening of this new studio complex.

Although this project has physically underway for two years, been planned for at least five, the actual dream of turning these semi-derelict buildings into a music complex dates back to the early 1970s when, after the concert hall was rebuilt following the fire in 1969, Benjamin Britten commissioned a study of the site with an eye for further development.

Looking at the originals proposals drawn up in 1972 Jonathan said: “The original proposals have mirrored almost exactly the plans that we have come up with years later. Phase two was creating the Britten-Pears building which they did in the mid-70s and phase three, which they never did, was creating the building which we are opening this weekend.”

Touring the building, Jonathan is clearly delighted that much of the original buildings have either been retained or reincorporated into the new structure. The old maltings were on the verge of collapse when Aldeburgh Music successfully applied for the funding to rescue them and turn them into their new rehearsal and studio facilities.

“We have tried to retain as much of the old buildings as possible and even when we have had to rebuild areas, like the roof for example, we have been able to re-use much of the original wood and obviously utilise a design which mirrors what was here before and complements the roof profile of the adjacent Maltings concert hall.

“What we have done is keep the look of the old buildings. We wanted to keep the feel and texture of the old buildings rather than have audiences walk in and feel they were entering a Disney version of an old maltings. When we first looked over the derelict site we were all taken by the traditional lath ceilings - which are strips of ash secured to a timber frame and then covered with plaster - but when we looked at it all the plaster had long since disappeared and what was left were these marvellous textured ceilings made of wooden strips. We decided that this is a feature that we would like to keep, so the architects had some new lath ceilings made and we decided not to plaster it and we have employed this to good effect in our foyer.”

He said that for visitors, it is immediately clear which parts of the building are original and what parts are new. “There's been no attempt to fake anything. If it looks old it is old, if looks new it is new. The new areas have very clean lines and very modern looking and tend to be concrete whereas the original areas of the building are made of traditional Suffolk red brick. These were industrial buildings and if we were rebuilding them today we would use concrete

One area he is especially delighted to have retained is an idiosyncratic upside down door set half way up a wall. “No-one knows why it was reversed like that but it was one of the first things we noticed and we knew we wanted to keep it because again it was a link with the past but also it gave the building a quirky character.”

Other original features incorporated into the new building include a couple of grain chutes have been turned into windows for an upstairs rehearsal studio.

Dominating the ground floor is the big, sound-proofed Britten rehearsal studio which can accommodate an 80 piece of orchestra and has retractable seating for 340 people. The walls, lined with concrete and shingle have been moulded in a wave-like configuration and have been augmented with wooden panels to give optimum sound quality. The room can also be used for recording purposes.

“The room has been designed to be very flexible. There is a system of curtains to change the acoustic depending if you have got people in here or not. It's got a very nice live acoustic, just like the concert hall - it's a wonderful mix of art and science.”

He said that the wooden panels had been specifically designed to boost a varied range of sound. “The whole space has been completely designed for sound but just as importantly we have shuttered windows with blinds which when necessary can be opened up to let in a lot of natural daylight.”

Behind this big rehearsal space are the hidden corridors and artists' dressing rooms which in turn double as small practise rooms as well as showers, toilets and kitchen facilities as well as an impressive audio-visual storage area holding all the computer-controlled technological kit to make lighting and recording equipment work.

Upstairs there is The Bakery, named after Dame Janet Baker, an informal meeting space which leads into the building's other large performance space the Jerwood Kiln Studio. The atmosphere is maintained by using the old charred wood from the original kiln in the newly restructure roof. Again shuttered windows can provide natural light when needed and allow performers the opportunity of looking out over the reed beds and the rest of the Snape Maltings complex.

“As you walk about it strikes you it's a bit of a rabbit warren. It's a vast place, looking at it from the outside, it's easy to forget that it's quite a sizeable undertaking. And the last area is great as far we are concerned, it's our new office space, and it will allow us to bring together our three departments - education, artist development and programming. At the moment we are spread between the offices behind the concert hall and in the Britten-Pears building. This means we are all under one roof.”

Speaking of the new complex as a whole Jonathan Reekie said: “What I love about this space is, while it's clearly part of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall family, it has its own character, its own materials and its own set of strengths. It complements the concert hall and allows us to stage a wider range of events and allow greater artist development.”

He said that the studio spaces would allow artists the freedom to experiment with and merge electronic music with more traditional classical and chamber pieces. “Now, the sky's the limit. For example, Faster Than Sound is something we do now at Bentwaters Airbase and that is very much classical music meets electronic music and we couldn't do that in the concert hall because the acoustic is far too alive - whereas the new space is much more adaptable and can accommodate material like this.”

He said that it was important that Aldeburgh Music, as an organisation, was equipped to handle a musical landscape that was changing fast. “Historically music was divided into quite regimented musical types and Aldeburgh was always associated with classical music but in the last five to ten years, the younger generation are much more broad minded, they have encountered a much wider range of music than their predecessors, mainly because music is much more easily available now. People store an amazing amount of music on their ipod and it can be incredibly eclectic. This is how Faster Than Sound came about - a young composer now, who has studied at one of the music colleges, may now be just as interested in techno or electronica as they are in the great masters of 20th century classical music and they want to mix those things up in their work.”

He said that the new facilities will enable that cross-fertilisation of styles to happen.

“It's the flexibility that the space provides which is really exciting. One week you may have The Aldeburgh Young Musicians working here - that the really talented eight to 18 year olds, then the following week you may have the young professional artists coming in and then the week after that, you have the really established people, then you have a really vibrant busy building…

“But, if you can do all three at the same time, then that's something very special because you've got Suffolk youngsters being surrounded by the young professionals, the people they want to be, while at the same time the young professionals have access to the established stars then you have a real sense of energy about the place.”

He added that although the studio complex, the Hoffman Building, was now complete work on the site would be continuing with the establishment of an artist's caf� on the site of the old dovecote by the Britten-Pears building. He said that the exterior of the building was being stabilised and a steel interior would be dropped in to provide the necessary structural integrity.

“It's important to have a proper meeting place where artists can meet informally and just swap ideas and just get to know one another. Who knows what artistic collaborations will be hatched there?”

Golly! What A Party, the housewarming for the Hoffman building runs from May 9-10. Details of the events, many of them free, are on