Author Archives: Kat Reading

Kat Reading doing Grade 1

My Grade 1 Challenge

I’ve never played the piano. The flute and recorder, sure. As an ambitious 14 year-old I even attempted the three-quarter length guitar, even if it was just to play the chord sequence of Don’t Look Back in Anger.

But not the piano. Was it a fear of my muddled beginner’s fingers desecrating those 88 pristine, shining keys? Or the imagined scene of all those great composers sitting serenely at their pianos, contemplating their state of being and then promptly reeling off a perfectly constructed piano concerto with ease? Maybe I’m just intimidated by the idea of playing an instrument longer than my arm.

Kat Reading doing Grade 1

Today is my first piano lesson. My tutor, Karen Dickman of Aldeburgh Music’s Education Department, shows me how to set up the stool. “Not too high.” I’m only 4ft 10! “Just enough to sit relaxed.” Relaxed?! This could be the greatest disaster to hit classical music since the loss of Bach’s Passions.

“Show me Middle C.” It’s there, in the middle. Being a flautist, I’m treble-clef savvy so I only know this ‘Middle C’ as the final note of the scale. But today it’s just the beginning. There’s something promising its rising inflection – it was one of the first notes to be classified in the early Medieval period, so it seems appropriate that, 1000 years later, it’s still where we begin learning.

“Play D – E – F – G.” With a bit of finger-stretching, I manage C Major, and I can see the logic. Something clicks. Ten minutes later, I’m playing Frere Jacques with aplomb.

“Now for the bass clef.” In my joy at finally mastering a tune, I had forgotten the problem of my slightly less well-controlled left hand. Starting with C again, we play the same scale an octave lower. Suddenly it makes sense: the bass clef is just a continuation of the treble clef. I can do this!

Many of the great composers began learning before they were 3 years old. The proven benefits of learning as a child include building memory and confidence. Learning an instrument as an adult is equally beneficial; boosting IQ, reducing stress, and even improving time management – and who doesn’t need that?

But for me, it’s not just the health benefits of learning an instrument that has made me want to start now. It’s the Challenge itself. It can be tempting after 20 years of formal education to revel in the absence of exams and the rigours of revision. But to challenge yourself to move beyond that very enticing comfort zone can be immensely constructive, especially when the its such a creative one. Creative activities, such as learning the piano, are known to establish a positive feedback system; you play a note and you want to play more. Before you know it, you’ve lost yourself in the ambition to play that elusive tune and whatever was deeply concerning you half an hour ago is now just a drop in a very large and distant ocean.

Which is why the achievement of playing my first notes on the piano – even the repeated refrain of Frere Jacques – and, for the first time, truly understanding them, is an extraordinary experience. It recaptures those long-forgotten eureka moments that were such a regular feature of childhood. It’s the adult equivalent of taking your stabilisers off for the first time.

At the age of 29 I’ve conquered my fear of the piano. Challenge accepted!

About the Grade 1 Challenge

Aldeburgh Music and the Britten–Pears Foundation invite you to register for your Grade 1 piano exam before June. Whether you pick up the challenge as a New Year’s Resolution or it’s something you’ve always wanted to do but never quite got round to, this year you have no excuse! Sign up at aldeburgh.co.uk/gradeone to receive a host of useful information to support you on your journey – including information about piano teachers, exam boards and more. If you’re able to achieve the Grade 1 standard by June, you will have the opportunity to make your Aldeburgh Festival debut on the Steinway concert grand piano on the main stage at Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Humphrey Burton on the commissioning of Owen Wingrave

Humphrey Burton, distinguished arts broadcaster, gives us an insight into the commissioning of Owen Wingrave. He writes:

One of the sadnesses of my professional  life is that by making a career switch to ITV, I missed out on the chance to produce Benjamin Britten’s so-called “television opera”. 

Here’s the background. Benjamin Britten’s genius received early recognition from the BBC. Before the war, when he was in his twenties, Britten wrote a great deal of incidental music for radio plays and features. His compositions were often broadcast from festivals and the Proms. Britten had less to do with television; he did not possess a television set and felt no need for one, given the extraordinarily busy life he led. Paradoxically, the first television company to take an interest in his operas was not the BBC but Associated Rediffusion, who taped The Turn of the Screw as early as 1959. (Sadly this ghost story, effectively translated to the screen by Peter Morley, was shown in two parts; Act One went out at 11pm  on Christmas Day and the second half followed…three days later! So much for building up suspense! And in those days there were no home recorders. Still, it was a grand gesture!)

The 1960s was an important decade in the history of television. The Pilkington Report resulted in the BBC being allotted a second channel, BBC 2, which opened in April 1964; from the beginning  it was transmitted in higher quality PAL (625 lines). And three years later came colour television. This is where I began to have some influence; the new channel was going to need lots more programmes and classical music (in those days) was held to be an important element in the mix. Departments were shuffled, new staff were recruited (among them two future stars, Melvyn Bragg and Tony Palmer) I was taken off the BBC’s flagship arts magazine programme Monitor, which I had worked on for five years, ever since leaving BBC Radio, and assigned to a new task of devising music programmes for the new network, documentaries, master classes, rehearsals, workshops and so on. I had done a “special” on BBC1 for Britten’s 50th birthday the previous November and one of my first decisions for the new network was to televise Peter Grimes from Sadler’s Wells. Within the year we had persuaded Britten and Pears to perform in a television version of Music in Miniature and to give an informal studio recital which was a great success – even though they didn’t enjoy the dry acoustic.

In those days the BBC made several studio opera productions a year. Menotti’s operas were especially popular but the net was cast wide and ambitiously: I remember Salome, Otello and Mahagonny to name but three. Studio opera was at this time in the remit of Drama Group, run by a Canadian named Sydney Newman. Mid-decade he recruited Basil Coleman to his team. Basil had  spent a decade in Toronto learning the craft of television drama direction but earlier in his life he had been closely associated with Britten and had directed several operas including (working backwards) The Turn of the Screw, Gloriana, Billy Budd and Let’s Make an Opera. What a pedigree! The BBC was now mounting a benevolent but aggressive two-pronged attack on Britten. I was asking for a new television work especially for children – we were hoping for a successor to Menotti’s  Amahl and the Night Visitors; Britten gave serious thought to the project but it never came to fruition. Instead he agreed to a  documentary – one of the very first BBC films in colour, helped along by American co-production funding; this was made in 1967 (Benjamin Britten and his Festival) and includes priceless footage of the Queen declaring open the Maltings Concert Hall and Opera House (my italics) – opera was very much part of Britten’s concept for the hall.

Meanwhile Basil and his producer Cedric Messina persuaded the BBC to mount Billy Budd in the studio. It is a magnificent production – to my mind the most successful of all television adaptations of Britten operas. You would have thought that Coleman would be the obvious choice for BBC TV’s next Britten opera project, Peter Grimes, indeed his name was in the frame in the early negotiations. But Britten threw an immense spanner in the works. He had not enjoyed sitting in on the studio production of Billy Budd. He didn’t like the set-up whereby the conductor (wearing headphones)  and orchestra were in one studio and the singers in another. Who can blame him? But  Budd was state of the art technique and the end product was splendid. Nevertheless Britten insisted that he would only conduct Grimes in the Maltings. A new factor in the negotiations was the arrival at the BBC of Britten’s record producer over the previous decade, John Culshaw. When I left in the summer of 1967 as a founder member of London Weekend, the new ITV company, John was recruited to take my place. Part of his deal, I imagine, was that he should be in charge of all Britten projects. At any rate he threw his weight behind Britten’s condition that Grimes should be done at the Maltings, where the acoustic was warm and generous and he would be at home. Basil Coleman had the courage to stick to his guns; he told Britten that television opera should be undertaken in a  modern studio and refused to work on an outside broadcast, where technical conditions – cameras, lighting, sound – would inevitably be inferior.

The Peter Grimes recorded in colour at the Maltings has many splendid aspects, not least the brooding presence of Peter Pears as Grimes. And it served as a test run for  Owen Wingrave. Another of the big developments in the 1960s had been the coming together of the major public service stations all over Europe in an organisation called the European Broadcasting Union. Sport was the EBU’s principal concern but cultural union was also on the cards. The Eurovision Song Contest was one of its babies. And an EBU opera commission was another. The BBC proposed  Britten’s  Owen Wingrave and it was duly mounted at Snape in 1970. Colin Graham was in Britten’s high command, with the choice of camera shots entrusted to the outside broadcast music director Brian Large, then at the beginning of his  illustrious career. The fact that Owen Wingrave has been shown to work very well in conventional theatres (and  the Maltings “Opera House” !) suggests that the “television ” element in the opera  is of only secondary importance. Somehow I doubt whether any television organisation will ever produce a studio version. I only wish I had seen Basil’s staging at the Maltings in 1984.

Humphrey Burton

June 2014

From Russia with Love: The Friends Flyaway to St Petersburg

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A view across the Neva river, which leads to the Baltic Sea. We were greeted by a beautiful Spring morning on our first day

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the city’s most famous literary sons, once called it ‘the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe’. At each turn there is a palace, a monument, pivotal historical moments captured in time by an army of anonymous artisans, and yet all seemingly in their naturally appointed place.

Arriving on a crisp Spring afternoon, we were delighted by a small flurry of snowflakes as we reached the airport. Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack to Dr Zhivago rings in my ears.

Staying in the centre of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we were led by our Russian guide, Tatiana, to our hotel, the four-star Petro Palace. A short walk from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Hermitage and the Mariinsky Theatre, we were truly in the heart of the action.

Luckily, our tour company, Kirker Holidays, had organised a full and thorough programme to take in all these sites and more. Tatiana noted each of these as we passed – each shining golden dome a promise of the delights to come.

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The Friends gather in Palace Square in front of the Hermitage Art Museum

Our Friends events are not just about having fun for an hour or two. They are about experiencing something different, getting the ‘inside track’ and meeting new friends. The annual Friends Flyaway offers this in abundance, and our tour of St. Petersburg was no exception.

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Tatiana guides us through the Grand Hall of the Catherine Palace

Each day we were treated to the wonders of the city. On Friday we visited the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, burial place of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky amongst others. Here we witnessed a Russian Orthodox service, followed by a tour of the Russian Museum. Saturday morning was devoted to the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest collections of fine arts, of which there are two million items including works by Da Vinci, Rembrandt and the Impressionists. If one spent a single minute looking at each item in the galleries, it would take over 10 years to see them all!

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The beautiful gilded dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral

The absolute highlight of the tour was when we were joined by Elizabeth Wilson, cellist and biographer of Rostropovich and Shostakovich. She studied cello under Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatoire, so was uniquely placed to guide us around the private homes of her former tutor and his mentor Shostakovich, giving us a real insight into both their home and working lives.

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Elizabeth Wilson (centre) tells us more about Rostropovich’s life during the Soviet era.

Having viewed the royal palaces of Catherine and Peter the Great, Elizabeth’s personal reminiscences in these domestic settings revealed another side to St Petersburg as a real powerhouse of artistic and musical creativity. Only on the Flyaway could we have such a privileged view.

As part of our tour there was also the option to attend several musical performances in the evenings; what could be better than Swan Lake performed in traditional style by the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) with Tchaikovsky’s original score?

When Peter the Great built St Petersburg three centuries ago on this former wetland beside the Baltic Sea, each newcomer was invited to bring with them a stone to form the city’s foundations. On our Flyaway we saw the astounding results of their efforts.

If you’re a Friend or Annual Donor, you will be excited to hear that we have just gone to press with our 2015 Friends Flyaway to Leipzig, which you can book now. Bach lived and worked in Leipzig for 27 years, and was Kantor at St Thomas’ Church, where the Boys Choir still sings every week. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mahler and Grieg also made the city their home! Our Flyaway will take in a concert of Sibelius by the Gewandhaus Orchestra and a Choral Concert at the Thomaskirche in addition to the Bach Museum, the Schumann House and Colditz, amongst many other cultural and historical sights.

If you’re reading this and would like to find out more about becoming a Friend or Annual Donor, do take a look at our ‘Support Us’ pages, or drop me an email on kreading@aldeburgh.co.uk

Look out Leipzig, here we come!

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The Friends gather around Rostropovich’s piano