Friday 11 March 2022

Aldeburgh Festival 2022

Britten & Women, Aldeburgh Festival 2022
Britten & Women, Aldeburgh Festival 2022

East Anglian-based arts writer, Tony Cooper, writes about the Aldeburgh Festival which comes round in June.

Founded by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier in 1948, the Aldeburgh Festival originally centred itself on the Borough’s cosy and intimate Jubilee Hall situated in Aldeburgh’s Crabbe Street and built at the expense of local industrialist Newson Garrett to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887. Interestingly, Garrett also built the complex of maltings at the village of Snape situated about five miles inland from Aldeburgh where Britten and Pears harboured the idea for years of converting the old Victorian red-brick malt-house at into a concert hall.

Their dream came true when the Snape Maltings Concert Hall was graciously opened by Her Majesty the Queen, accompanied by Prince Philip, on 7th June 1969 marking the festival’s 21st edition. Originally, Britten wanted a hall seating 1000 costing no more than £50,000 but had to settle for one seating 830 costing £127,000. The opening gala programme - entitled ‘Music for a Royal Occasion’ - included an instrumental piece by Henry VIII, a Byrd prayer for Elizabeth Im Purcell's ode ‘Come Ye Sons of Art, two movements from Mendelssohn's ‘Scottish’ Symphony (dedicated to Queen Victoria) plus three pieces from Britten's opera, Gloriana, focusing on the life of Elizabeth I.

Tragedy, however, followed the grand and royal opening when the Maltings became gutted by fire. A new production of Mozart’s Idomeneo was all ready for the stage but immediately transferred to Blythburgh church. Impatiently, Britten wanted the hall rebuilt just as it was and quickly, too. Miraculously, this came about. The hall - completed by timber seating inspired by the auditorium of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth - opened in time for the 1970 festival. Once again, the Queen ventured to Suffolk to open the rebuilt hall commenting that she hoped not to be asked back a third time.

However, the move to Snape paid off handsomely for the festival opening it up to a new and wider audience while the venue could also attract much larger ensembles and orchestras as opposed to Jubilee Hall.
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, whose early musical life was forged in Norfolk, loved so dearly.

Always striving for the best, Britten and Pears brought to the Suffolk coast a host of international stars and emerging talent that continues to this day especially with this year’s festival - the 73rd edition running from Friday 3rd June to Sunday 26th coming three years after the 72nd due to the Covid pandemic - which will enjoy an extended period of 28 days thereby making up for lost time!

The disappearance of time, however, happens to be a key element in Tom Coult’s new opera, Violet (libretto by the acclaimed playwright, Alice Birch, known for her powerful female-centred writing) while running out of time is the motivation for some large-scale works surrounding the climate crisis.

Other programming strands include Britten and Women with an exhibition at the Red House, Dame Janet Baker in conversation with John Bridcut and Sophie Bevan singing Britten’s Phaedra as well as work by Britten’s female contemporary composers: Doreen Carwithen, Imogen Holst, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy, Priaulx Rainier and Grace Williams. There’ll also be a celebration of the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme at 50.

And in celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (the official day falls on Friday 3rd June coinciding with the opening day of this year’s festival) the BBC Singers, conducted by Owain Park, will perform on Tuesday 14th June a collection of short choral pieces by English composers created to celebrate the Queen's coronation in 1953.

The programme will also include Britten’s dramatic anthem Sacred and Profane together with an anthem written by the BBC Singers’ associate composer, Judith Weir, as well as world premières by Hilary Campbell and Britten Pears Young Artist, Omri Kochavi. His work sets texts by Iraqi-born Israeli poet, Amira Hess, inspired by women in both ancient and modern Jewish-Babylonian culture he describes as the ‘Ghostbustresses’ - warding off evil spirits through poetry and art.

And in celebration of the Glasgow-born composer and conductor, Oliver Knussen, who was at the heart of the Aldeburgh Festival for many decades, would have turned 70 this month. Therefore, in remembering Ollie, the festival will be hosting three concerts over the course of one single day (Friday 24th June) in his honour. All the performers taking part have connections to Knussen as a composer and conductor and the trio of concerts offers an introduction to his world and an upbeat to a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, comprising three pieces inspired by pictures and objects at art exhibitions by Mussorgsky, Respighi and, indeed, Knussen, whose unfinished work Cleveland Pictures will receive its first performance. From Rodin and Fabergé to Goya and Turner, each movement of Cleveland Pictures brilliantly translates a different item from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, into sound. Even in its incomplete form (15½ minutes) the work ranks as one of Knussen’s most extensive orchestral statements. Of seven projected movements, four exist complete, two exist as fully orchestrated fragments and one exists only as a ten-bar sketch in short score. 

The American première is currently being planned by the Cleveland Orchestra who originally commissioned the work. Graciously, the orchestra’s management has given its permission for this first performance to go ahead at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. To end the tribute to Knussen, Martin Owen joins the BBC Symphony as soloist in the composer’s Horn Concerto written in August/September 1994. The work was premièred by Barry Tuckwell in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, on 7th October 1994, with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer. The score was revised a year later.

Large musical forces descend upon the Suffolk coast for a two-day visit with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. They’ll give a couple of concerts conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The first features Shostakovich’s tenth symphony coupled with Walton’s cello concerto performed by Laura van der Heijden as well as a tribute to the river Thames by Elizabeth Maconchy. In the second, the eagerly anticipated première of Gavin Higgins’ new cantata, The Faerie Bride, promises a festival highlight. The work (featuring mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons and baritone Roderick Williams) dramatizes a Welsh ‘lady of the lake’ myth in which the faerie who emerges from the water to become a local man’s bride is rejected by the local community but takes matters into her own hands. The concert opens with Grace Williams’ Sea Sketches for strings. A piece dating from 1944, the work powerfully evokes the sea in all its glory.

The Britten Sinfonia also holds fort at Snape Maltings Concert Hall for a couple of concerts, too, with their first offering an inspirational new concerto for orchestra featuring an array of percussion instruments collected from hundreds of pieces of rubbish thereby creating an incredible array of perfectly tuned and untuned percussion instruments offering a greater range of sounds and timbres than a normal orchestra’s percussion section. Here they showcase the resulting concerto - an inspirational project, the brainchild of percussionist Vivi Vassileva and composer-conductor Gregor A. Mayrhofer - performed by the brilliant orchestral players of the Britten Sinfonia.  For their second concert, conducted by Gregor A. Mayrhofer, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F major (the Pastoral) will be heard in stark contrast to a new work from Brett Dean in response to the Beethoven while Vivi Vassileva will give the first UK performance of a new work by Bushra El-Turk, one of this year’s featured composers.

From large musical forces to the intimate force of one, the acclaimed organist, Anna Lapwood, makes her Aldeburgh Festival début playing her own arrangement of Britten's Four Sea Interludes in Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Her programme will also include the ‘Prelude’ and ‘Angel’s Farewell’ from Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Kerensa Briggs’ Light in Darkness and Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Taking Your Leave.

Violin superstar Nicola Benedetti (also a featured artist this year, and the recently announced new director of the Edinburgh International Festival) will perform a couple of violin suites: one by Bach, the other by Wynton Marsalis. Therefore, Bach’s sublime second partita will be heard in contrast to Wynton Marsalis’ suite (written for Benedetti) which takes inspiration from Bach but also from Scottish, Irish and American folk dances. Benedetti will also be joined by Japanese violinist, Yume Fujise, for a selection of duos by Bartók while this acclaimed Hungarian composer will be highlighted in three concerts by the Doric String Quartet who’ll play all his six quartets over the course of one day: Friday, 10th June, starting at 3pm. Benedetti will also join up with the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective to perform a series of ‘night pieces’ by composers including Dowland, Schubert, Britten, Florence Price and Cole Porter culminating in Schoenberg's beautiful early masterpiece, Transfigured Night. A busy girl, Benedetti will also close the festival on Sunday 26th June playing concertos by Vivaldi and Geminiani with her Baroque Orchestra making their festival début.

If Shakespeare’s ‘Wooden O’ couldn’t hold the vast fields of France neither can this feature do full justice to the plethora of excellent concerts at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. Therefore, for a full blow-by-blow account of what’s on, where and when, check out the festival’s comprehensive website at 
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