Listen to this article
If you walk along the seafront at Aldeburgh in the next few weeks, you may find boatmen scraping back paint and varnish, before applying new coats in preparation for the summer season. Some of these boats will soon look as good as new.
The same process is going on a couple of miles inland at the Snape Maltings, home of the world-renowned Aldeburgh festival – except that here the process of scraping back and revarnishing is artistic. Aldeburgh is gearing up not just for a new season of concerts but for the long-term future. It has scraped back its credo to what Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears emphasised at the festival’s 1948 debut – the support of new work and the development of young artists – and is painting it afresh.
No one pretends that Aldeburgh can recreate the exact ethos nurtured by its founders, any more than a boat built today would look or cost the same as it did 60 years ago. “So we have to find a different way of doing the same thing,” says Jonathan Reekie, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music, the umbrella organisation that runs a year-round programme centred on the three-week summer festival. “We don’t have our inspirational founders any more, but what we can do is create a structure that promotes what they believed in.”
The fire-fighting that dogged Aldeburgh in earlier years – when the Snape Maltings burned down in 1969, and in the struggle for survival after Britten and Pears died – is now ancient history. If you ring Aldeburgh Music today and ask for 999, you will be put through to its development manager: the 999 Club, named after the number of years for which Aldeburgh Music recently purchased the lease on the Maltings, is one of the fund-raising arms that has sent its capital investment programme shooting towards a £12m ($23m, €18m) target.
The aim is to build a “creative campus” around the concert hall at Snape, where only 40 per cent of the original grain-malting site has been developed. In the next two years the remaining space will be filled by state-of-the-art rehearsal and performance facilities, including a video/electro-acoustic studio and an orchestra room doubling as a 340-seat venue.
In that context the summer festival – hitherto the Suffolk town’s face to the world – becomes just one part of Aldeburgh Music’s remit, representing a 10th of the £4m turnover. The reason Aldeburgh needs extra facilities is to keep pace with its less visible work, which has quietly blossomed over the past few years.
The true measure of Aldeburgh’s creative pulse is its young artists programme, its artist residencies and its new opera writing course. Reekie explains: “When I started working here 10 years ago all these activities existed in one form or other, but in their own boxes. What we’re doing now is pulling them under one roof, profiting from the synergy and matching them to an amazing place. What you see at future festivals is more likely to be home-grown, developed and rehearsed here.”
This summer’s festival (June 8-24) illustrates Reekie’s point. Concert-goers will still be able to hear Alfred Brendel, who has long averred – like most other visiting artists – that Aldeburgh’s far-from-the-madding-crowd atmosphere brings out their best performances. But the 60th festival also finds the Britten-Pears Orchestra anchoring a new staging of Death in Venice, the only opera Britten wrote for Snape and not heard there for 30 years. Thomas Adès, the festival’s artistic director, will conduct the world premiere of an orchestral suite from his chamber opera Powder Her Face. And there will be a new multi-media piece, Elephant and Castle, exploring the contrasting destiny of two 1960s-era architectural sites, one rural and the other urban, at a critical moment in their development.
All this illustrates Reekie’s point – the festival is turning into a shop window for what, in artistic terms, amounts to a research and development laboratory, the like of which has never existed in the UK. “What we are trying to do,” he says, “is create structures that enable artists to set aside time to develop ideas and really stretch themselves. There’s a fantastic working environment here, a magic that makes artists want to try new things. It was the same for Britten. In 1948, founding an international festival in a fishing village on the eastern edge of England was an unlikely proposition. Management consultants today would dismiss it as mad.”
Even in the early 1970s, when the Britten-Pears School was set up, the idea of providing training and performance opportunities for young professional musicians was quite radical. Today it is accepted practice – and the school, now known as the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme, runs a thriving series of 10-day courses for emerging talents, many of them non-British.
For established performers there is Aldeburgh Residencies, an opportunity to step out of the merry-go-round of professional life and develop a new work or skill. “In other art forms the need for that sort of support was already recognised,” Reekie says. “There’s the National Theatre Studio and the Laban Centre for Dance, but nothing for musicians. And so three years ago we founded Aldeburgh Residencies so that people with exceptional talent can try out their ideas. It’s basically about giving people the time and space to be creative, in a way they find hard to fit into their everyday performing lives.”
Among recent beneficiaries were the trumpeter Alison Balsom, who was looking for an opportunity to form her own ensemble, and Christopher Purves, an established operatic baritone who needed encouragement to branch out as a recitalist. On a larger scale the tenor Mark Padmore wanted to re-think Bach’s St John Passion, a work he had performed many times without properly exploring it. He brought the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to Aldeburgh for four days, and what emerged – as anyone who heard the resulting concerts will know – was a totally fresh view of the piece.
The residencies extend to more experimental work, of which Elephant and Castle is a prime example. It is the brainchild of stage director Tim Hopkins, who envisioned a piece of music-theatre from the contrasting fates of two radical 1960s architectural sites – the soon-to-be-demolished Elephant and Castle shopping centre in London, and the Snape Maltings, which is entering a new phase of development. The performance will use film, digital sound and live performers. In Reekie’s words, “what Hopkins wanted to explore was how to incorporate new technologies and new media into opera – the original multi-media art form but the last to embrace new technology.”
The duality of the piece will be reflected in the music – some of it composed in an “urban” genre by the self-taught Mira Calix, and the rest by the conservatoire-trained Tansy Davies. Reekie says an Aldeburgh residency involves “having a conversation about ideas and seeing where they go”, without pressure to produce a finished work. An expensive experiment? “Not really, when you think what you might get of enduring value.” The same goes for the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme, aimed at developing basic skills rather than producing works for public performance. Its debut three-week course in March will be led by Italian opera composer Giorgio Battistelli.
So the next time you visit Aldeburgh, by all means admire the paint and the varnish. But also try to remember that by pushing their own boat out 60 years ago, Britten and Pears set a course that should enable Aldeburgh to sail confidently into the future.
For details on the FT/Aldeburgh Music special offer for readers visit FT.com’s special Aldeburgh website.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published