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Snape's Roger Wright on how Aldeburgh Festival stays true to its roots

PUBLISHED: 10:03 20 May 2018 | UPDATED: 10:03 20 May 2018

Roger Wright outside the Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Picture: Matt Jolly

Roger Wright outside the Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Picture: Matt Jolly

Matt Jolly

The Aldeburgh Festival is one of the cornerstones of Suffolk’s cultural calendar. This year it celebrates its 70th anniversary. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to former BBC Proms director and now Snape Maltings chief executive Roger Wright about what it is that makes Britten’s festival such an important event.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears standing in front of the recently completed Snape Maltings Concert Hall - 1969Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears standing in front of the recently completed Snape Maltings Concert Hall - 1969

Seventy years ago this summer, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears along with producer friend and librettist Eric Crozier staged the very first Aldeburgh Festival. From June 5-13, Britten’s New English Opera Group provided the core of the very first festival staged between Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall and the parish church.

The festival included readings of poetry, literature, drama, lectures and exhibitions of art as well as the first local performances of Albert Herring by the English Opera Group; Britten’s newly written Saint Nicolas; as well as performances by Clifford Curzon and the Zorian String Quartet.

The festival quickly gained a popular following and established a reputation for quality. Before long the festival had grown to take in other venues, largely churches, in nearby towns such as Orford, Blythburgh and Framlingham.

The festival has always provided a platform for composers to unveil new work and to collaborate with their peers and with young emerging talent. Over the years the festival has gained in stature and grown from an event with a national reputation to something which has international renown.

The Queen visits the restored Snape Maltings Concert Hall in June 1970. The Queen is accompanied by Benjamin Britten while Peter Pears talks with Prince Phillip.The Queen visits the restored Snape Maltings Concert Hall in June 1970. The Queen is accompanied by Benjamin Britten while Peter Pears talks with Prince Phillip.

The current custodian of Benjamin Britten’s legacy is Snape Maltings chief executive Roger Wright who says that the secret of the Aldeburgh Festival is that it has managed to evolve and maintain a contemporary feel while adhering to the core values laid down by Britten and Pears.

Looking forward to this year’s anniversary event, Roger Wright, the man who re-invented the BBC Proms for the 21st century, and helmed BBC Three for 16 years, says that keeping the festival relevant to audiences and musicians is incredibly important.

“You can’t work in a place like the Snape Maltings and be responsible for something like the Aldeburgh Festival without feeling, to quote Tony Blair, the hand of history on your shoulder. But, it is a wonderful privilege to work there and one of the reasons that it remains so successful and so distinctive is because there is a continuity of vision from 1948. Of course, the social circumstances we find ourselves in now are very unlike the post-war world that the Aldeburgh Festival was born in but we maintain the artistic outlook set by Britten and Pears.

“One of the major differences is the Festival’s ability to reach its audience around the world, through broadcasting and other means, and also, we recognise the size of audience we now enjoy would have been far beyond what Britten and Pears could of imagined back in 1948. The Festival now works on a completely different scale but the core values, that original vision laid down by Britten, Pears and Eric Crozier of a high quality, music festival, in distinctive venues, in a distinctive region, serving both a local and much broader audience, still holds good.”

Benjamin Britten 1967 conducting a rehearsal at Snape MaltingsBenjamin Britten 1967 conducting a rehearsal at Snape Maltings

He said that although the Aldeburgh Festival had always been primarily about music – “and that’s not going to change” – but it had always included other art forms like film, literature, fine art, sculpture which gave the event a broader canvas to work with.

“But, even within the music element, the festival has always taken the time and trouble to offer audiences an incredibly varied diet of work, all of which is curated to fit into a wider musical context. It has never been a one composer festival, or a one themed festival, it has never focussed exclusively on new music, it’s never been just about Britten’s music, although that has played its part, and it’s never been based at one particular venue, although it is very much associated with the Snape Maltings Concert Hall. We like the fact that it spreads itself out into the community going out to the Jubilee Hall in the past, Aldeburgh Church, Orford, Blythburgh, this year we are going to Ely cathedral. We have the bandstand on the beach in Aldeburgh, along with the Pump House and Aldeburgh Cinema. It’s all about getting different people involved at different times, times that suit them.”

He said that the fact the festival is made up of different elements means that it can be put together each year in a different way, with a different emphasis, and in that it doesn’t become predictable or samey.

“Even though we don’t have Britten, Pears and Eric Crozier around now, I think the reason that the festival continues to thrive is because it has always been artist-led. Post Britten and post Pears, it has been the likes of Oliver Knussen, Thomas Adès and Pierre-Laurent Aimard who were very concerned in taking things forward. We like to have that combination of composer and performer because it gives the festival that same unique quality that Britten invested in it 70 years ago.”

He says it is important that they give themselves permission to adapt and follow new trends because the festival never stayed still during Britten’s lifetime, it was constantly evolving, so why should it be preserved as some stone monument now?

“Also, we are blessed living and working in his wonderful natural environment at Snape, and like Britten before us, are constantly inspired by the changing seasons and the magnificent landscape, and so, of course, things will change and develop – and that’s where you need a fresh perspective, new people coming in with new ideas all the time.

“ Thomas Adès and Pierre-Laurent Aimard will tell you that they didn’t do everything themselves, they talked to people, collaborated with people and you need that freshness of approach.”

One of the areas that he finds most exciting is the opportunity to juxtapose modern music from contemporary composers with classic repertoire. “Not only does it bring the new music to life the classic pieces provides context – not least the music of Britten which can juxtapose new work in a most interesting way.

“For this festival, being able to make a snap shot of Britten’s years in America, means that you get those great classics, written while he was still only in his mid-20s, but then asking the next question which is: ‘what’s the fresh take?’ We were so thrilled that Colin Matthews said that he would orchestrate the Michael Angelo Sonnets which means that we get a completely new orchestral connection with Britten.”

For Roger, it all about context and providing a larger canvas for both musicians and audience. “What the best festivals can do is reveal the extent of the musical landscape. We know the classic pieces, these are the mountains that really scale the musical heights but to put these in some sort of context we need to map out the valleys and the lower reaches of the mountain range. This is what we can do by highlighting some lesser known works as well as the acknowledged masterpieces.”

This year’s Aldeburgh Festival runs from Friday June 8 – Sunday June 24 2018

Five Aldeburgh Festival Highlights

To See The Invisible, Emily Howard (music), Selma Dimitrijevic (words after a short story by Robert Silverberg), Britten Studio, (Fri 8 Jun - Mon 11 Jun)

Condemned for a ‘crime of coldness’ by an authoritarian regime, The Invisible is cast adrift from society. All human interaction is outlawed. This life of isolation leads to strange, vicarious thrills and painful inner torment. Yet, as the lonely exile draws to a close, it is not coldness but perilous empathy with a fellow Invisible that risks the cycle of exclusion beginning all over again…

Emily Howard’s new opera, based on a short story by renowned American sci-fi writer Robert Silverberg, is a claustrophobic study of isolation; a dark satire on social conventions; and a stark reminder of our cruelty to outsiders. Howard’s music embraces extremes – the eerie beauty of The Invisible’s secluded psychological spaces set against the perpetual motion of the World of Warmth.

Goldberg Variations, includes world premiere of Llanto (para las chumberas) Lament [for the prickly pears] by Simon Holt, Mon 11 Jun 9:30pm, Aldeburgh Church.

A new chamber work for a wind instrument of the baroque proceeds and one of the pivotal works of that – or any – musical era. The art of transcription can change our perceptions, uncover myriad new details – and reinforce the music’s greatness.

Violinist Dimitry Sitkovetsky’s evergreen arrangement of Bach’s iconic keyboard variations allows us to look at a familiar work from a new angle. Simon Holt’s new quartet is an agitated little elegy that draws on the keening sound of the oboe d’amore so often utilised by Bach in his sacred music.

Belcea Quartet, Dvořák, Janáček, Mozart, Fri 15 Jun 7:30pm, Snape Maltings Concert Hall

Over the last two decades the Belcea Quartet has taken a commanding place amongst contemporary string quartets. ‘The intelligence and honesty of the playing was as impressive as its energy and vehemence’ wrote The New York Times of a recent performance, and it is hard to think of qualities better suited to Janáček’s explosive quartet. But the freshness of their approach, coupled with a searching intelligence, yield comparable insights in both Dvořák’s much-loved quartet and Mozart’s brilliantly inventive work.

Knussen and Festival Ensemble, Mon 18 Jun 7:30pm, Britten Studio

In his eighties Harrison Birtwistle is as uncompromising, poetic and provocative as ever, and any new work from him commands attention. This concert has two, performed by close friends and collaborators: a major two-piano work written for Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and the first British performance of Three Moth Songs, settings of the poetry of the eminent American Robin Blaser. Oliver Knussen (dedicatee of one of these songs) directs a hand-picked ensemble. There’s also new music by Vassos Nicolaou (a wedding gift for the Aimard-Stefanovich duo) and two rarities; Debussy’s narrated mini-drama sets prose-poems to music of ravishing sensuality, and a rarely-heard collection of tributes compiled to mark Debussy’s death 100 years ago yields alluring piano miniatures from no less than Bartók and Stravinsky amongst others.

Bye-Bye Beethoven, Fri 22 Jun 7:30pm, Snape Maltings Concert Hall

‘Classical music is like a ship’ Patricia Kopatchinskaja has said ‘and everyone is standing at the stern and looking at how nice it was where we came from. But no one dares to go onto the bow to see what is coming.’ This most refreshingly open-minded musician is constantly looking for new directions.

Her staged concert is a voyage through revolutionary voices that shaped and redefined music from Bach to the present day. But with Kopatchinskaja at the helm it steers a fascinatingly unorthodox course. Featuring orchestral performances (including Beethoven’s towering concerto, a signature piece for her) and collaborations with video and sound designers, it is a gripping portrait of one of today’s leading performers and her bold and imaginative curatorial flair.

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