Aldeburgh Festival 2022 is bigger and better than ever
- Credit: Matt Jolly
The Aldeburgh Festival returns this summer after a three-year gap. It's longer and features more new music than ever before. Andrew Clarke spoke to Roger Wright about the gems to be found in this comeback event
After a three-year hiatus, due to Covid restrictions, the Aldeburgh Festival is back, providing a much-needed boost for our neglected musical souls. Running three weeks rather than the usual two, it will feature more new music and more premieres than ever before.
Roger Wright, chief executive of Britten-Pears Arts, and recently named Concert Hall Manager of the Year by the Association of British Orchestras, is delighted that the Aldeburgh Festival is returning with a bang.
Highlights include a series of performances by virtuoso violinist Nicola Benedetti, including the last night concert which will feature the debut of the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra, and the return of Britten collaborator and soprano Dame Janet Baker for a special ‘In Conversation’ event. There will be a three-concert celebration of the life and career of festival legend Oliver Knussen on what would have been his 70th birthday, while the BBC Singers present A Garland for the Queen, a special concert to mark Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee with a collection of short choral pieces written for the coronation in 1953, together with new pieces written by young composers to mark this historic milestone.
The Festival is also making a trip to St Edmundsbury Cathedral on Saturday June 11 to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee with a performance by the ORA Singers directed by Suzi Digby. The programme celebrates choral works written during both Elizabethan periods, pairing pieces composed in the 16th century with 21st-century music, including a first performance of a Britten Pears Arts commission by young Irish composer and performer Aine Mallon.
Although Roger is clearly delighted that the Festival is back, he is at pains to point out that music has been going on at Snape in stop-start fashion throughout the pandemic.
“The fact that we have just been given what amounts to the ‘Concert Hall of Year award’ reflects on what the talented team here have been doing during the pandemic," he says. "Every time the starting gun has been fired, so to speak, we have managed to get some live music, live performances out there.
"We have the advantage of this amazing site, the fact that people are arriving in their own bubble and we, collectively, had a determination to carry on doing things. This has allowed people to remain in contact with the site and to maintain the habit of concert-going in between lockdowns, so they have never had to be completely starved of live music.”
It's led to a situation where the Aldeburgh Festival can return this year with a programme bursting with new music commissioned for this year’s event as well as for the postponed festivals in 2020 and 2021. The 2022 Aldeburgh Festival opens on June 3 with the premiere of Violet, a new opera from rising composer Tom Coult with a libretto by playwright Alice Birch. This was to have opened the 2020 festival, but it finally gets to be staged this year, much to Roger’s delight.
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“It should have opened three years ago. We had it pencilled it in for 202, but that was put back. We tried to schedule it during the summer/autumn last year, but we couldn't do it, so at long last Violet will have its debut performance in June.” Roger is thrilled that the festival can bring together two fresh talents who have never worked together before to create something new and distinctive.
The opera is described as a timeless story about the here and now. Violet is a person whose life is governed by the steady tick and the inescapable chimes of the clock… until one day she feels that time has started to quicken. “It’s a marvellous piece of work which should really engage the audience," says Roger.
In total, 41 new works are being premiered through the festival which includes music theatre works, multi-media installations and a dramatic cantata. Of those 41, 19 are Britten-Pears commissions which Roger describes as “the most significant representation of new music in the history of the Aldeburgh Festival”. It is, he says, the volume of work waiting to be performed that is the main reason for extending the festival to three weeks this year.
“It’s not unique, but it’s certainly unusual – particularly in the modern era. I think there were a couple of early festivals which were three weeks long, but it’s certainly not been done in recent years. It should make it a very special event this year.” The other reason for the extended run is that the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme is marking its 50th anniversary this year. The current line-up of performers will join with prestigious alumni to stage a special concert on Saturday June 11, while works by the current cohort of young composers will be woven into the fabric of the festival.
But the Aldeburgh Festival is more than a music event. As Roger Wright points out, its official title has always been The Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, and art exhibitions, film screenings at Aldeburgh Cinema, talks and lecturers have always been an important element of the programme, and frequently are useful to put the music into context.
The festival is also returning to its roots by making extensive use of a number of local venues like Aldeburgh, Blythburgh and Orford Churches, the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh Cinema, The Britten Studio at Snape, as well as Britten’s former home The Red House.
"The Festival has a long established tradition of spreading the music, the talks and the exhibitions throughout the locality. It really anchors the festival in the wider Suffolk countryside while maintaining the Snape Maltings Concert Hall as the focal point," says Roger.
Among the non-musical highlights is a major exhibition at The Red House, Britten & Women, which celebrates the powerful role women played in Britten’s life, while composer Joanna Ward will create an audio-visual installation which will explore the nature of work and asks the questions what is good work, what is hard work and what do we want to do with our time? Meanwhile, across the Snape Maltings site art curator Isabel de Vasconcellos will bring together three distinctive artists, Paul Benney, Laurence Edwards and Kiki Smith, all of whom have a love of the environment and the human form.
Finally, the festival will be celebrating the 100th birthday of painter John Craxton. During their lifetime, Britten and Pears collected 13 works of art by Craxton, which were hung at their home, The Red House. To mark Craxton's centenary year and Britten's and Pears' connection to him, the festival will gather the works in the Britten-Pears collection and display them in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall gallery.
The 73rd Aldeburgh Festival runs from Friday June 3 to Saturday June 26, 2022. Full details of the programme and online booking at brittenpearsarts.org
Aldeburgh Festival highlights
Violet – New opera for the festival’s opening night Friday June 3. It will be re-staged on Sunday June 5.
Houses Slide – a music/theatre piece by Laura Bowler which addresses the climate crisis and is powered by 16 bicycles
Nicola Benedetti – Thursday June 9 the superstar violinist performs music from Bach to jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, before performing Bartok duos with fellow violinist Yuma Fujise. Nicola Benedetti will be performing with Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective at Blythburgh Church on Wednesday June 15, followed by Quartet for the End of Time on Saturday June 18 and unveiling the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra on Saturday June 26.
Britten Sinfonia – The orchestra will be performing two concerts on Sunday June 19. The Recycling Concerto has been created by percussionist Vivi Vassileva and composer-conductor Gregor A. Mayrhofer and is performed on hundreds of pieces of rubbish collected and created into an array of tuned and untuned percussion instruments. Later, in the evening they and the Britten Sinfonia will be performing Bushra El-Turk’s new percussion concerto and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.