“Where are you off to?” asks the cab driver en-route to London Liverpool Street Station.
“Aldeburgh. East Suffolk, ” I confidently reply. “For the weekend.”
Recognising the implicit permission granted, the cab driver proceeds to tell me about his recent experiences in the area.
These recollections turn out to be rooted deeper in Essex than East Suffolk, but one short anecdote about a café on the Essex coast not accepting credit or debit cards grabs my attention.
“I didn’t have any way to pay the bill. There weren’t any signs, ” protested the cab driver. “But the owner was really helpful. Told me how to find the nearest cash machine and said he was quite happy to wait for me to return with the money.”
The apparent trustworthiness of the café owner surprised the cab driver. “That wouldn’t happen in London.”
The anecdote prepared me well for my second trip to East Suffolk for this year’s Aldeburgh Festival: things are different in East Anglia. Adjust.
The accommodating spirit isn’t necessarily evident in every interaction, but the change of pace is, almost as soon as you arrive at Saxmundham train station. Things move at an entirely different pace in East Suffolk.
This is exactly the point about the area. The most rural part of the county is also the most difficult to travel around if you’ve not got your own transport. Settlements are remote and facilities sparse.
The consequence is that the area has a feel of steadfastly clinging onto the past. And only an idiot would assume that its inhabitants will willingly shift to your pace of doing things. You have to adjust to the county.
Don’t expect to book taxis on the day; there are no Ubers. There is a regular bus service but it doesn’t start early, doesn’t finish late and takes in a great many other towns and villages, making it the least efficient mode of public transport if you’re in a hurry.
If you’re looking to book a table at a restaurant, don’t ring up for availability on the day. Eating opportunities are by and large at set times because staff are thin on the ground. Avoid disappointment outside of these set times by not asking if they still serve food. So if you can, eat before you head out. This and the fact that East Suffolk demands you don’t rush anywhere means you must plan in advance. The county insists on it. It also recommends that you get your head out of your phone and look all around you at the area of outstanding natural beauty you find yourself in. It won’t take long before you’re mesmerised.
This is of course one of the reasons composer Benjamin Britten settled in the area after returning from the US after the Second World War. Being in such a spacious environment promotes clarity of thought. It also stirs emotions and calms the nerves. It makes focussed activity a pleasure. The benefits of being in an area so remote wasn’t on him, his creative pals, and the many thousands of musicians and artists who have followed in his wake, hence why, after a two-year COVID hiatus, we’re here for the 73rd Aldeburgh Festival.
It was also where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears had in mind when the pair first had the idea of a school for training musicians back in the late sixties. As oboist Nicholas Daniel explains in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme Thoroughly Good Podcast, one of the benefits of the remote location of Snape Maltings Concert Hall and the Britten-Pears School is how it promotes a different kind of musicianship. It is a place where people can recalibrate themselves.
The necessary overnight stays a visit to this location demands make the shift into a lower gear helps create a state of mind which is sustainable. This process is also accelerated if you’re staying with a landlady or in shared accommodation. Far from being an anonymous experience affordable privately rented accommodation means you’re going to be interacting with the owner of the property you’re staying in. Nothing promotes a sense of community and their (and by extension your) place in it than a conversation over breakfast about shared connections.
During my first stay on the first weekend of the Festival, I discover I’m renting from a lady who used to be a stage manager for the English Opera Group, worked with the English Chamber Orchestra at Snape from time to time, and had lived through the Jonathan Reekie era of Aldeburgh Festival Management, and now the still-relatively-new era of Roger Wright’s. Both are praised for their individual achievements, unique qualities, and impact on the Festival, but one thing remains clear from the conversation over our wholemeal toast: building a connection with the local audience is vital for Britten’s continuing legacy.
What I observe in the Concert Hall Café is that this connection is a matter of course and one of pleasure for current Chief Executive Roger Wright. I comment to the equally outgoing and interested Executive Director Sarah Bardwell on the third night of my stay just how ‘visible’ both of them and their counterparts Harry Young and Caro Barnfield are amongst the audience. Watch Roger Wright walk hurriedly down the length of the restaurant and there are multiple occasions when he stops to talk to concert-goers passing the time with a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.
This isn’t unique to Snape and Aldeburgh – I observed Roger Wright do a similar thing at the BBC Proms when he’d appear talking to the many Prommers queuing for their place in the arena. But here in a building that reaches above everything around it casting a strong distinctive line in the wide Suffolk skies, the sense of a connected community and a shared experience is much much stronger than in London.
We are not punters at Snape Maltings; we’re joining up with fellow fans to soak up the atmosphere and restore ourselves. On occasion, this might even include listening to music too.
The Concert Hall restaurant is also where I bump into old friends. Some from twenty-five years ago, others I’ve made connections with in the past five. Wide smiles and warm embraces compliment the vast expanse of nature beyond the windows that consistently delights our eyes whatever the weather.
Here we talk about concerts we’ve been too, the atmospheres they’ve created and debate whether the seat cushions on sale in the gift shop are as effective mitigation for the wicker Concert Hall seats, compared to a much-loved feather cushion brought from home.
Here we can breathe slowly and deeply from our diaphragms. We become accustomed to the recently selected gear required for East Suffolk life. The Aldeburgh Vibe sets in.
In this almost euphoric state, musical experiences command far more focused attention.
At Orford Church, clarinettist Mark Simpson’s devastatingly still melodic line in the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet performed with the Solem Quartet has the effect of rendering everyone in the audience motionless.
Later that same evening, him and a network of musician friends (including one extra player drawn the London Sinfonietta who were also playing at Snape that night) rattle off Mozart’s considerable Gran Partita, revelling in the clarity of Snape’s acoustic and wowing the audience with spectacular articulation and jaw-dropping breath control. Rock stars the lot of them.
Tom Coult and Alice Birch’s dystopian opera Violet is a compelling watch and it seems universally applauded by critics and audience alike. There is a buzz about the site as performers delight in the reviews. “Would you believe it?” I hear one member of the production team say, “Five stars. From The Telegraph!”
Dwarfed by the large expanse of Snape’s wooden stage, the sight of Piatti Quartet members and oboist Nick Daniel made their performance of Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet a touching celebration of a man who’s output still connects with musicians and audience alike. Written when he was 19, the work fizzes with Britten’s characteristic musical language and treatments and sounds as though it makes a great many demands on the oboist.
My concluding concert before I return to London was the most spectacular. Pianist Viknungur Olfasson disarming the audience from the stage as he introduced his playlister-programme, awkwardly shuffling from side to side as he did so. After which he turns to the keyboard and plays with such stillness and focus that there are moments when it’s doubtful whether the audience will ever move again. A collective sigh when Olafsson segues from a fragment of Mozart’s D minor Fantasia to a D Major Ronda confirms that, like me, everyone had been unwittingly carried along by the tension the pianist had created curating the programme in the way he had. The ability to create this kind of experience, and to experience it in a remote place is very special indeed.
After Olafsson’s performance, I say goodbye to my friends in the concert hall foyers and say hello to others of old I haven’t seen until now. And now a few days after an early train made possible by a seemingly impossible find – an early taxi – I find myself in a slump, yearning for the Suffolk marshes again. That’s the sign of a good Festival.