Wednesday 15 February 2017

A unique campus of the arts: a walk round Snape Maltings with Roger Wright

Snape Malting - photo Philip Vile
Snape Maltings - photo Philip Vile
Snape Maltings in Suffolk has an intriguing history, built as a maltings in the 19th century it owes its existence partly to the location on the river Alde which provided a means of transport (by barge), and it is this location which has proved so evocative in the building's more recent history as a concert hall, where the very location seemed to reflect the essence of Benjamin Britten's music. But there is drama and complexity in the story too.

Snape Maltings By Ashley Dace, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Snape Maltings - photo Ashley Dace, CC BY-SA 2.0, 
Thanks to Britten visionary idea, the maltings was yurned into a concert hall for the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival. Yet Snape Maltings burned down at the opening of the 1969 festival and yet was re-built in time to open the 1970 festival. Since then the use of the site has increased, and Snape has developed from being a location for the Aldeburgh Festival to a year-round musical arts campus. During my recent trip to Aldeburgh (see my article), we were taken round Snape Maltings by the present director, Roger Wright, to talk about what has been achieved and the ambitious plans for the future.

In 1938 Britten moved to a house in Snape village, the first of his houses in the Snape/Aldeburgh area. The house was on a hill, and overlooked the Snape Maltings, then still in use as a maltings. By 1965, the maltings were no more and the buildings were available as warehousing. It was Britten's visionary idea to turn the largest of the buildings into a concert hall. And this proved to have superb acoustics, a large rectangular shape with rough red bricks which have just the right acoustical qualities. As he shows us round Roger Wright also comments that the hall is highly democratic, there is no particular place where sight and sound are better than elsewhere.

Semyon Bychkov conducting the Britten Pears Orchestra in Snape Maltings concert hall - photo Matt Jolly
Semyon Bychkov conducting the Britten Pears Orchestra in Snape Maltings concert hall - photo Matt Jolly
It was Britten's vision that the maltings would become more than a concert hall, though lack of money prevented the development. In 1979 the granary store was converted into the Britten-Pears School, and in the 1990s more foyers and circulation spaces were added to the concert hall. The big turning point came in 2009 when the Hoffmann Building opened, containing a mix of performance studios and rehearsal spaces. This musical campus was still surrounded by further buildings from the former maltings, some of which were ruinous and others were run as a commercial enterprise by the original owners. It was this Aldeburgh Music of which Roger Wright became chief executive in 2014. Yet this is a job which he has never actually done!

Snape Maltings: The Hoffmann Building - photo Philip Vile
Snape Maltings: The Hoffmann Building - photo Philip Vile
Shortly after Roger joined Aldeburgh Music it was discovered that the owners of the site (descendants of the original Victorian maltster) were putting the whole site on the market. The maltings is protected and listed, but that would not prevent commercial or residential development of the site. It was felt that posterity would never forgive them if Aldeburgh Music did not at least attempt to buy the freehold of the whole site. Thanks to a great deal of support they were successful and now Roger Wright is chief executive of a business which includes not only the music campus but eleven commercial enterprises dotted around the maltings site (the number of employees has doubled) as well as owning ruined buildings whose areas add up to something almost double the size of the existing concert hall. So there is a vast potential.

Roger is, however, aware of the dangers. Snape Maltings (Aldeburgh Music has been renamed to reflect the new focus) still has the music campus as its core business, and Roger is keen to ensure that this stays that way and understands the need to ensure that the musical focus does not get overshadowed by the commercial, particularly in the plans to develop the ruined areas. Music at Snape Maltings is a year-round affair and the development of the ruined areas would allow the organisation to develop this further.

Snape Maltings: the derelict buildings
Snape Maltings: the derelict buildings - photo Philip Vile
But the present musical activities are impressive. At the centre is the concert hall, which has a regular programme in addition to the Aldeburgh Festival. In the Britten-Pears building there is a recital hall which gets used for recitals, coaching and more. From January to April there is a young chamber group in residence each week, with the residency culminating with a concert in the Jubilee Hall, there are also lunch-time concerts and study days in the recital hall, all of which get strong support from the local community. Snape and the surrounding area is not densely populated, yet one of the miracles of Snape Maltings existence is development of a committed local community which wants to come and learn, and support young artists.

The opening of the Hoffmann building in 2009 with its flexible combination of studios and rehearsal spaces has allowed the programme of having artists in residence to develop. Whilst Roger took us on our tour we encountered a group studying opera as well as a young composer developing a new opera. This is Snape's unique appeal, the organisation combines a major festival with a striking assemblage of venues in a superb landscape. The various strands are highly integrated, and Roger proudly points out that a third of the programme of the 2016 Aldeburgh Festival arose out of elements from Snape Music's year-round work in residencies and artistic development.

Snape Maltings: the Jerwood Kiln studio
Snape Maltings: the Jerwood Kiln studio - photo Philip Vile
Part of Snape's charm is the combination of old industrial buildings with modern facilities, and Roger comments that if the Victorian maltster came back today he would still recognise the complex. But the way the buildings have been used has developed in the 50 years since the concert hall opened. The Britten-Pears building from 1979 was very much on the music school model, a recital hall with lots of practice rooms. Whereas the Hoffmann building from 2009 is a far more flexible series of spaces, and key to Snape Music's programme is the idea of collaboration between artists, and now the artists who come are not just musicians but poets and writers, the new spaces allow things do develop and happen.

The location provides not just peace and visual inspiration, the relative isolation and the fact that mobile phones work badly, if at all, means that artists gain focus as well.

Snape Maltings: the Hoffmann Building - photo Philip Vile
Snape Maltings: the Hoffmann Building - photo Philip Vile
We are taken on a quick tour of the ruined buildings (which Roger wryly describes as 'the one with no roof and the one with the bird shit'). Developing them would allow Snape Maltings to triple the number of residencies they have, as well as providing an increased support for the music and well-being programme which extends from work with dementia and in prisons, to looking the well-being of performers and musicians. In fact, Roger comments that concern for music and well-being threads through everything that they do.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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