Young musicians plan to take over Snape for creative Britten weekend

Snape Maltings Concert Hall

Snape Maltings Concert Hall - Credit: Archant

This year’s Britten Weekend at Snape may be built around the Suffolk composer’s song cycle Nocturne but it certainly isn’t interested in sending you to sleep. Quite the reverse. It’s probably the most spirited, unpredictable event that Aldeburgh Music have mounted – fizzing with creative energy and youthful exuberance.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor. - Credit: Archant

It’s a weekend which has a sense of celebration and looking at investing in young talent. Britten’s Nocturne deals with themes of dreams, sleep and the night but this weekend is dreaming of the future.

It’s a weekend dominated by young professionals and aspiring professionals. It’s an opportunity for young musicians from all over the world to get together and swap notes, talk about their experiences and just socialise with people who understand about the demands of being a dedicated young musician.

Colin Virr, head of Aldeburgh’s young musicians programme, said: “Studying to be a professional musician can be a very isolating experience. It requires a lot of dedication, a lot of hours alone in a rehearsal room and as much as other people can be supportive, it’s great to be able to talk to people who actually go through the same rigorous schedule as you do.”

Launching the weekend will be a performance by unconducted orchestral ensemble Spira Mirabilis, an international collective of young musicians, most of them under 30, who come together at various intervals to perform and then go back to their day jobs.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor. - Credit: Archant

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Technology keeps them all in touch. They have a limited programme by classic composers like Beethoven and Schubert but every aspect of the performance is scrupulously rehearsed and argued over.

Shoel Stadlen, from Aldeburgh Music, said: “Spira Mirabilis have far more rehearsal time than most orchestras. They don’t have a conductor and therefore are a much more democratic group of performers. Everything is discussed and debated. The last time they were here in Aldeburgh in 2011 they spent more than three hours working on the first movement of a piece that lasts just ten minutes in performance. Every phrase and nuance is explored and individual players argue and put forward their case for their own particular interpretation of the piece. They try the slowest, the fastest, the most expressive way until they know each work inside out and agree on the best way to perform it.”

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He said that as it takes a substantial rehearsal period they were delighted that Spira Mirabilis collectively agreed to perform Britten’s Nocturne with tenor Robert Murray on the opening night and to close the weekend on Sunday with the world premiere of a new work by Colin Matthews.

“They are a very dynamic group of young musicians. In 2011 they went into Ipswich, walked between the market stalls, walked up to the steps by the town hall, unpacked their instruments and just started playing. They provided a flash mob performance of Beethoven in Ipswich town centre. Seven minutes later they were gone. They packed up their instruments and melted into the crowd.”

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor. - Credit: Archant

Colin said the spirit of these adventurous musicians is also reflected in the Aldeburgh Middle East Orchestral Development Programme and their work with Aldeburgh Young Musicians. This project grew out of 2012’s Aldeburgh World Orchestra which brought together young performers from around the world so they could learn from one another.

The event not only brings performers together but also offers the opportunity for fledgling composers to stage their first works. The evening after Spira Mirabilis perform Britten’s Nocturne, members of the Britten-Pears School, Aldeburgh Young Musicians and Aldeburgh Middle East Orchestral Development Programme join together to perform A New Nocturne which is a new work composed by Aldeburgh Young Musicians member Jay Richardson and Britten-Pears programme composer, Samantha Fernando. This will also feature the young tenor Alex Aldren.

Bill Lloyd, Aldeburgh’s Middle East project manager, said that the performance of The New Nocturne was born out of desire to develop the links created by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, which was formed as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

“We discovered that the area where the needs were greatest was the Middle East. The Aldeburgh World Orchestra threw a spotlight on the region and we saw that the young musicians there don’t have access to the same training, contacts and experiences that their colleagues in Europe or the United States have.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor. - Credit: Archant

“The Aldeburgh World Orchestra benefitted from a small group of players from the Middle East, particularly Egypt, and we and the British Council decided that we would try and do something a bit more long term to help these young players. So the British Council have funded a four-year project which uses our contacts and expertise to train these musicians remotely using digital tele-conferencing with a view that in the next four years we would establish groups in Egypt, Palestine and Jordan who might participate in another Aldeburgh World Orchestra.”

He said that the project had been running for the last 18 months and because of the political instability in the region it hadn’t always been easy to establish contact. Sometimes the technology didn’t work and at other times it wasn’t safe for the musicians to be in certain areas.

“However, we are all persevering and we have wanted to find a way to bring back to the UK musicians from the Middle East who had been part of the AWO. That’s one element of the weekend, the other element is that we believe that musicians of all ages and backgrounds benefit from working in collaboration not only with their peers but with those who are just ahead of them. They can meet, mingle, swap stories, pass on advice and more importantly provide an aspirational goal.

“Both Colin and I believe that musicians of all ages, from the very youngest to senior professionals, should have the opportunity to work together. Last year we did a project where we had a scratch group made up of wannabe Britten-Pears musicians mixed in with those already at the Britten-Pears School and they performed a new composition by one of Colin’s Aldeburgh Young Musicians. That was a huge success and we said: ‘Let’s do that again’.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor.

Spira Mirabilis, the classical ensemble who perform without a conductor. - Credit: Archant

“This time we’ve made it more ambitious. We’ve expanded the remit and have really gone for broke and tried to bring in as many talented young players as we can. We have an amazing collection of mentors, leading professional musicians to mentor them – Ken Sillitoe, Gary Kettel, Rosie Ventris, Michael Harris – and we are going to throw them all together and see what they make of these wonderful new compositions.”

Colin said that no-one makes allowances for age or treats the younger players any different. “They are all musicians and the younger ones find it really inspiring and aspirational to be treated as an equal. The unique thing about what is happening at Aldeburgh is that they do all collaborate together as artists. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the country.”

He said that young musicians today are also open to assimilating influences from a wide variety of musical sources. Classical musicians no longer just concentrate on perfecting classical compositions. Their approach to music and performance is coloured by a wide variety of musical inspirations which means that music in the 21st Century is possibly the most diverse that it has ever been.

“That doesn’t mean that the quality of the music or indeed the musicianship itself has been diluted in any way. In fact the opposite is true. Today’s young musicians are proficient in so many styles that it could be argued that they are the most elite musicians of any age. What is important to remember is that where you have musical hybrids being created, they are keeping the quality. Nothing is being diminished. If you listen to the music you will realise that the quality is there all the way through.

Marcellino Safwat performing with the Aldeburgh World Orchestra

Marcellino Safwat performing with the Aldeburgh World Orchestra - Credit: Archant

“I think young musicians today are willing to experiment and explore in a way that those who, in the past, had a very conventional musical upbringing, aren’t so adaptable. When we are looking for people to join Aldeburgh Young Musicians we are deliberately looking for people who are very creative and willing to experiment and produce exciting music themselves. Because we have such a random mix of instruments, there isn’t an existing repertoire so we have to create the music ourselves.”

Speaking from Cairo, Egyptian cellist Marcellino Safwat said he couldn’t wait to return to Aldeburgh. “I really enjoyed my time in Aldeburgh before. I am looking forward to meeting up with some old friends, people like Bill, and sitting on the beach and looking at the sea. You don’t get that in Cairo.”

He said that his participation in the Aldeburgh World Orchestra was a hugely inspiring experience and he now keeps in contact with a network of musicians around the globe. “I come from a musical family. My father is a percussionist and my mother is a piano teacher. My sister is also a pianist, but, in general there aren’t many people who play orchestral music, so having contact with Aldeburgh is very important.”

He said that he is now 20 and has been playing the cello since he was seven and is studying at the Cairo Conservatory. “I only had five days to apply to join the Aldeburgh World Orchestra because I only saw the announcement just before the deadline.” He said he swiftly recorded a YouTube clip of himself playing and was delighted to be selected to take part. He is equally delighted to have maintained contact with the team at Snape and says that the opportunities offered have helped him become a better musician.

Aldeburgh Young Musicians who will be performing at the Britten Weekend.

Aldeburgh Young Musicians who will be performing at the Britten Weekend. - Credit: cont

Bill said that Marcellino was one of seven instrumentalists from the Middle East who are exceptional musicians who are having to overcome huge obstacles in order to realise their talent.

Further highlights of the Britten Weekend include a concert by The Cardinall’s Musick (Sunday, October 26), a song recital by Robert Murray and Andrew West (Saturday, October 25) and the world première of a new work by John Woolrich for Aldeburgh Brass (Saturday, October 25) conducted by Elgar Howarth.

Shoel said: “I think Britten would have approved of the spirit behind this weekend. He thought inspiring young musicians was very important and also he was committed to commissioning and premiering new work. I think this weekend brings together both those elements very successfully.”

This year’s Britten Weekend runs from Friday October 24 - Sunday October 26. More details can be found online at

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