Tuesday 11 September 2012

Britten 100 launch

To the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music for the launch of Britten 100, the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. The centre of the events is the Britten Pears Foundation, but the celebrations are in fact a wide collaboration between a variety of organisations, tribute to the wide regard in which Britten's music is held. The events start from yesterday's launch and run all the way through to the centenary day itself, on 22 November 2013 and beyond. At the launch, Richard Jarman the director of the Britten Pears Foundation gave a summary of the events. There is a cornucopia and this summary post will be the first of a number covering the celebrations.

The presentations at the Britten Theatre included a number of short films, which are available on the Britten 100 website, www.britten100.org. The films included a rather effective short biography narrated by Joan Bakewell to the sound track of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, film director Wes Anderson talking about how an appearance in Noyes Fludde at the age of 10 stayed with him and fed into his latest film Moonrise Kingdom, Sir Antonio Pappano on the power of Britten's music and Dame Janet Baker talking affectingly on Britten as composer, conductor, pianist and man.

The website will be the hub of the celebrations, with copious information and listings of the events. It has been created by the Britten-Pears Foundation who are spending £6.5 million on a wide variety of activities, including the website, commissioning six new works in collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, education projects and opening up the Red House.

At the Red House, architect Stanton Williams has built a new archive building, enabling Britten's studio to be recreated and opened to the public. The studio was where he wrote some of his greatest works, such as the War Requiem.

The Britten-Pears Foundation are also making a series of centenary grants to enable Britten's work to mounted all over the world, from the Chilean and New Zealand premieres of Billy Budd to Midsummer Nights Dream in Brazil.

From my own perspective, perhaps the most exciting single part of the celebrations is the fact that all of Britten's operas will be performed in the UK. Deborah Warner's Death in Venice comes back to ENO, Gloriana returns to the Royal Opera House in a production by Richard Jones shared with Hamburg, Mahoganny Opera are touring the Church parables and will be bringing them to the City of London Festival, ETO are performing Albert Herring this autumn, there is a tour of Paul Bunyan, Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, Owen Wingrave at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Midsummer Night's Dream at Scottish Opera (Olivia Fuch's ROH Linbury production) and a remarkable season from Opera North starting in October 2012 devoted to Britten's operas. And a production of Peter Grimes on the beach in Aldeburgh – sounds fantastic.

Interestingly, The Prince of the Pagodas is being reworked with new Japanese inspired choreography by David Bintley for Birmingham Royal Ballet. Kim Branstrup with be doing a new work for the Royal Ballet to some of Britten's music.

Britten's portrait is going to be on the 50p coin, the first time a composer has be honoured in such a way. And there is a new biography from Paul Kildea, the first major biography in 20 years. The celebrations will be covering Britten in print, on the radio, TV, film and in recordings.

But the celebrations are about more than just big concerts and operas. There is the Familiar Fields project (http://www.familiarfields.org/) a celebration of Britten's life and work in Norfolk and Suffolk involving local people and local organisations in the area. And there is Aldeburgh Music's remarkable Friday Afternoons.

Britten's Friday Afternoons is a set of songs which he wrote for his brother's prep school. Aldeburgh Music are using these as the focus of a project to get children and schools singing by encouraging them to devote Friday afternoons to singing. There is a website, teaching packs and partnerships, all to encourage singing culminating in getting thousands of children singing on the centenary day.

The launch event concluded with a lovely performance of two of the songs from Britten's Friday Afternoons by the Tiffin Boys Choir.

At the centre of all this, is of course, the rather difficult figure and slightly unlikely hero that Britten was. He was full of dichotomies, he had a gift of friendship but was also famous for cutting people off. He was intensely private and in many ways very conventional, but he and Pears were the first homosexual couple to have a publicly acknowledged relationship. When Britten died in 1976, homosexuality had only been legal in England and Wales for 9 years (and was still illegal in Scotland), but Sir Peter Pears received a letter of condolence from the Queen. Yet Britten never had any interest in being flag bearer for gay liberation. Nowadays, perhaps easy to underestimate the stresses and difficulties that underlay Britten's life, but which fed into his work in some way.

At the presentation Richard Jarman emphasised how, from the very beginning, Britten had a remarkable global presence which is sometime underestimated in England. Within three years of its premiere, Peter Grimes had been seen all over the world. A testament to the power and complexity of Britten's music.

The celebrations will undoubtedly enable us to see and hear many old familiar friends, but it will give us the chance to make new discoveries and see familiar works in a new light.

The press pack from the launch event includes a huge amount of information on the Britten 100 celebrations and I will be returning to it in various other posts.

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