My first Britten Weekend at Aldeburgh Music

I am at the end of my second month here at Aldeburgh Music and have just enjoyed some remarkable events and extraordinary music making during our Britten Weekend. If any three days are able to sum up the range and quality of this inspirational musical campus at Snape Maltings then it is this last weekend.

Throughout the three days, the sense of this organisation and place as catalysts for creativity was really powerful. Since my arrival here I have been struck by the affection which people who have been here feel towards Aldeburgh Music. However, it is hard to get across to those who have still to visit the power of the focus and inspiration that musicians and other creative artists talk about to describe their time here.

Robert Murray and Spira mirabilis perform Britten’s Nocturne

There was so much packed into the Britten Weekend experience: the residency of the unique chamber orchestra Spira mirabilis (including a world premiere of a new piece by Colin Matthews), the brass course led by professional players including John Wallace and Richard Watkins, (reaching a climax with an impressive concert by Aldeburgh Brass in Orford Church including a stunning premiere by John Woolrich), the collaboration between Aldeburgh Young Musicians and Middle Eastern orchestral performers presenting two new pieces based on Britten’s Nocturne – which had been performed earlier by Rob Murray, who also gave a wonderful recital during his stay… and, as a brilliant coda provided by Solomon’s Knot, a workshop staging of an anonymous Italian baroque opera The Hospital of Incurable Madness as the result of ensemble’s Open Space Residency here.

Jonathan Sells of Solomon’s Knot as the doctor

Rebecca Moon as a lovestruck patient in ‘The Hospital of Incurable Madness’

Residencies are key to Aldeburgh Music’s work and one of the joys of the programme is the way in which it grows and develops on site. There could hardly be a better example of this than the week leading up to Britten Weekend. Aldeburgh Young Musicians were working with young players from Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, who came over as part of our Middle Eastern Orchestral Development Programme and had a pretty amazing time, having individual lessons with leading UK tutors, working on the premieres of two new Britten-inspired orchestral song cycles, teaching Suffolk folk musicians Arabic traditional music at one of the local pubs on the Friday night and playing Britten’s piano during a tour of The Red House, all the time being schooled in the finer points of Suffolk culture, such as fish and chips on the beach, by the brilliant Cairo-based cellist, Marcellino Safwat, who had been here before with the Aldeburgh World Orchestra in 2012.

And this was just the tip of the iceberg. We also had the brass players from the Britten–Pears Orchestra in residence with the aim of launching the brand new ensemble, Aldeburgh Brass, at Britten Weekend; the early music ensemble Solomon’s Knot, who are receiving three years’ residential support from us, were here exploring a recently-discovered 17th-century Venetian opera and also planning the project they’ll present at Easter, a dramatic presentation of early French and English music; and then of course once Spira mirabilis arrived last Tuesday, there was an incredible buzz around the site, with almost every space filled with musicians, working on an incredible diversity of projects.

Spira Mirabilis rehearsing ‘Spiralling’ by Colin Matthews

The ‘Spira experience’, as many of the audience called it, left many of us reeling. The players’ commitment to what they term their ‘project’ is without precedent. Rehearsing is what it is all about for them and I can think of no premiere which has had the loving care and attention to detail that the group gave to Colin Matthew’s new piece Spiralling. It had around 40 hours of preparation time. Almost 2 hours for each minute of music! The performance (as with the haunting and characterful playing of Nocturne in their first concert) was one of the most thrilling musical events I can remember.

I came away, as I discovered in subsequent conversations did other members of the audience, with a strong sense that we do not prepare ourselves adequately as listeners for concerts. That is the challenge that Spira throws down to us. If they as performers are so committed to preparing, we must perhaps respond by playing our part with more active listening. So I will now go back to the poems that Britten set and listen again to some of Colin’s music and immerse myself in a way that would have enhanced my experience. This is not about a feeling of doing homework but about delving deeper into live musical events and thereby gaining a richer experience from them.

A memorable and thought provoking weekend indeed.