Monday 25 February 2019

East Anglian-based arts writer, Tony Cooper, reports on this year’s Aldeburgh Festival which comes round in June

Aldeburgh Festival 2019 - original illustration by Brian Grimwood
Aldeburgh Festival 2019 - original illustration by Brian Grimwood
Founded by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier in 1948, the Aldeburgh Festival, originally centred on the Borough’s cosy and intimate Jubilee Hall in Crabbe Street, seated around 235 but when Britten and Pears conceived the bright idea of turning the Victorian-built malt-house at Snape (situated about five miles inland from Aldeburgh) into an 832-seat venue in 1967, it was a brave decision.

But it paid off handsomely and opened up the festival to a new and wider audience while the venue could also attract much larger ensembles and orchestras as opposed to Jubilee Hall. Ambitious as ever, Britten and Pears never stood still and within five years they reclaimed more buildings on the site and established a centre for talented young musicians.

The development and expansion of the site continues to this day with the Hoffmann Building housing two excellent spaces suitable for performances as well as a number of additional rehearsal rooms and a social area. The centrepiece of the building (aptly named The Britten Studio, a 340-seat venue) is cleverly designed offering an excellent and flexible acoustic with a high level of sound insulation for recording.

There’s also the Jerwood Kiln Studio seating up to 80 people in a flexible configuration providing a purposeful space for smaller groups to rehearse and suitably equipped for video and electro-acoustic installations. And a nice touch, architecturally speaking, is to the fact that the venue retained its double-height roof and much of the existing fabric of the original kiln structure.

The wisdom of books, the wisdom of music, the wisdom of art, are all employed and entwined within the wonderful Maltings complex that Lowestoft-born Britten (who was President of the Norfolk & Norwich Music Club for many years) dearly loved so much.

Always striving for the best, Britten and Pears brought to the Suffolk coast a host of international stars and emerging talent and that continues to this day with this year’s festival (running from Friday 7th to Sunday 23rd June) centred upon Snape Maltings Concert Hall featuring Barbara Hannigan, Thomas Larcher and Mark Padmore as artists-in-residence.

Thomas Larcher (photo by Richard Haughton)
Thomas Larcher (photo by Richard Haughton)
Austrian-born composer, Thomas Larcher, is also featured across the festival not least by the UK première of his first opera, The Hunting Gun, based on a best-selling post-war Japanese novella by Yasushi Inoue surrounding a universal story of deception of others and, indeed, of ourselves. The well-loved tenor and festival favourite, Mark Padmore, will perform in seven concerts as well as lead a poetry and music series and Canadian-born soprano, Barbara Hannigan, will appear as soloist, conductor, narrator, recitalist and mentor to singers from her own Young Artist Programme.

Other residencies include pianist Stephen Hough, baritone Roderick Williams, composer-conductor Ryan Wigglesworth and cellist Alisa Weilerstein whilst the Belgian early music ensemble, Vox Luminis, will be heard over three concerts.

There will also be a special tribute paid to Oliver Knussen who died shortly after last year’s festival. A brilliant musician, he was a key figure in shaping the Aldeburgh Festival as it is today. Many of his pieces will be played while the Knussen Chamber Orchestra (named in his honour) will make its début in the opening concert on Friday 7th June featuring Thomas Larcher’s The Hunting Gun.

New work is the lifeblood of the Aldeburgh Festival and, in this respect, premières will come from such gifted and enterprising composers as Charlotte Bray, Caterina di Cecca, Edmund Finnis, Joanna Lee, Nico Muhly, Frederik Neyrinck and Freya Waley-Cohen while leading artists and ensembles beating a path to Suffolk include the likes of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Tenebrae, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Elizabeth Kenny and Paul Lewis while a week-long series of masterclasses will be led by Mark Padmore and Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House.

Former artistic director of the festival, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, will offer an affectionate tribute to Oliver Knussen in a sequence of music by their friends, musical collaborators and composers close to both of their hearts. Both men have done so much in championing the glittering modernism of Elliott Carter and George Benjamin whose work will heard in the concert on Monday 10th June as well as a new work by Charlotte Bray, who studied with Knussen at Snape. At the programme’s heart, though, is Knussen’s own ingeniously-constructed seven-minute piece, Variations for Piano, a jewel from the workbench of a master-craftsman.

And a rare showing of a film about Oliver Knussen, Sounds from the Big White House, can be seen at the Aldeburgh Cinema on Friday 14th June (2.30pm). Made to celebrate Knussen’s 50th birthday in 2002, Barrie Gavin’s affectionate film also stands as a portrait of his musical landscape focusing on his life at home in Snape. It reveals not only a man with eclectic interests and passions ranging from the unwieldy size of his score archive to his collections of owls, clocks, gadgets and jokes but also a widely-admired composer of meticulously-crafted scores. His generosity to and championing of younger composers is clear, along with his frankness about feeling exhausted from writing in long form for his opera, Where the Wild Things Are. Gavin’s film astutely captures Olly where he lived, performed, taught, entertained and composed for many years and where his absence after his sudden death last year is felt so keenly.

Karina Canellakis (photo by Mathias Bothor)
Karina Canellakis (photo by Mathias Bothor)
The BBC Symphony Orchestra (Saturday 15th June) conducted by American-born conductor, Karina Canellakis (making her festival début) features soprano, Sarah Tynan, in a rare performance of Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers. Described as a ‘symphonic cycle for high voice and orchestra’ it was commissioned by the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival in 1936. A gripping and thought-provoking piece, it focuses on the savagery and the oppressive and ominous events of the late 1930s.

In that decade Britten was employed by the GPO Film Unit writing for documentary films. Also working at the same unit was the poet and critic WH Auden with whom Britten collaborated on the films Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936). Auden was something of a mentor to the young Britten, encouraging him to widen his aesthetic, intellectual and political horizons.

And when Britten received a commission from the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival to compose a work involving a full orchestra for the 1936 festival, Auden assembled the text for an orchestral song-cycle writing some of it and adapting other sections from existing poems.

The première was given at the 34th Norfolk & Norwich Triennial on 25th September 1936 at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, conducted by the composer. Incidentally, it was at this hall where Britten first met Frank Bridge. The date: 27th October 1927. He was conducting the première of his work: Enter Spring - Rhapsody for Orchestra which was well received by critics and public alike. By all accounts, the performance of Our Hunting Fathers went well, too, leaving most of the audience, according to Britten, very interested. The press reviews ranged ‘from flattering and slightly bewildered’ (Daily Telegraph) to ‘reprehension and disapproving’ (The Times).

And thrusting the Aldeburgh Festival into a futuristic direction one can immerse oneself in Drive-by Shooting, a short video and sound installation blending opera, street art and animation which appears as a stencil-style animation on outdoor walls with sound transmitted to listeners wearing wireless headphones. The scenario’s a comic story of love, passion and revenge played out by octogenarians on Zimmer-frames at an outdoor location at Snape Maltings. Performances (varying times) run from Saturday 8th June to Saturday 15th June.

Also in action on Saturday 15th June (10.15pm) is the four-piece composer collective Bastard Assignments who’ll explore in the Britten Studio the limits of what a performance can be - joining the dots between performance art, installation, composition and improvisation. Thrillingly imaginative creators and radical thinkers, Bastard Assignments are provocative, virtuosic and always engaging and the work they collectively create dives into a warren of ideas and possibilities daring one to follow.

You want more! There’s always more at the Aldeburgh Festival therefore check out their website at

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