The Aldeburgh Vibe

“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.

For a lot of my trip to the Aldeburgh Festival I made use of electric bikes hired out by EezyBikes. £40 a day. A surprisingly good workout completing my 25 mile Thoroughly Good Expedition from Aldeburgh to Orford and back.

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.

Aldeburgh Beach

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.

The view from Snape Maltings Concert Hall Restaurant looking out over the Suffolk marshes

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.

The Red House – Britten and Pears home – open to the public offering exhibitions about Britten and his work, access to the house itself and the considerable Britten-Pears Archive

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.

Snape Maltings Concert Hall

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.

Looking out from the Concert Hall Restaurant across the Suffolk marshes towards Iken Church

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.

Clarinettist Mark Simpson

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.

Vikingur Olafsson

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.  

Aldeburgh Festival premieres ‘Violet’ by Tom Coult and Alice Birch

Gripping, bleak, and thought-provoking

The Aldeburgh Festival got underway on Friday 3 June at Snape Maltings Concert Hall with the premiere of Tom Coult and Alice Birch’s opera ‘Violet’.

The apocalyptic tale documented the gradual disintegration of human life as a town and its inhabitants slowly come to realise how time is gradually, hour by hour, day by day, slipping away from them.

Set against an animated backdrop of constantly, the small company led by Anna Dennis in the title role. Richard Burkhard played Felix, Frances Gregory Laura, and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks The Clock Keeper.

Richard Burkhard as Felix and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (right) as The Clockkeeper (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Cohesive costume and set design by Cecile Tremolieres and Rosie Elnile gave the drama an Elizabethan feel with judicious use of trestle tables, ruffs, and tankards.

It was a compelling watch in part down to the manually updated display board documenting the days completed and hours lost, building tension and driving towards the world’s inevitable end. Composer Tom Coult’s characteristically inventive and descriptive score, played by the London Sinfonietta and conducted by Andrew Gourlay, sustained a sinister air throughout the 90-minute production.

In particular, the extensive use of pizzicato bass and low bass clarinet by Coult was a pleasing addition to an already rich and inventive score, reminiscent of Dudley Simpson’s resourceful use of chamber ensemble in his Doctor Who TV music scores in the mid-70s.

Anna Dennis as Violet (Photo: Marc Brenner)

I was particularly impressed with the concision in Coult’s writing. Driven partly by the libretto, itself a reflection of the story, there is an immediacy to the composer’s musical ideas that drives focus in the audience. At the same time, the music maintains originality and integrity throughout. It is a remarkable balancing act that serves the storytelling.

Its most potent storytelling twist was the outlying conceit: we know what’s going to happen at the end of the story long before most of the characters do by virtue of the display visible to all from the stage. Yet, as the realisation grows amongst the inhabitants, so the sense that this story needs to slow down because of the characters impending demise. That same sense of tension is present in Tom Coult’s music.

Frances Gregory as Laura (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Violet’s depression, driven by the regularity of the clock, slowly turns to hope for the central character as time is lost and society disintegrates. The conclusion is bleak and appropriately ambiguous, though the epilogue – a concluding animated sequence depicting computer-generated characters – jarred stylistically. I need to think further on what was being said in the epilogue.

What I liked most was the work’s efficiency (driven no doubt by the relentless loss of time the inhabitants of the town are experiencing themselves). It was that efficiency that helped make the production a compelling watch.

Anna Dennis possesses a magical voice – clear, distinct, rounded, and warm. She made light work of Coult many high notes and intricate melodic lines.

The co-production between Britten-Pears Arts and Music Theatre Wales was originally scheduled for premiere at the 2020 Aldeburgh Festival but was postponed due to the COVID pandemic.

‘Violet’ continues at the Aldeburgh Festival on 5th June (tickets from £10). There are performances at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff (8 June), Theatr Clwyd, Mold (19 June), Hackney Empire, London (23 June), and Buxton International Festival (18 July). It is a must-see.

Line-up revealed for an extended Aldeburgh Festival running from 3-26 June 2022

With 2021 heading towards its inexorable demise, news of events scheduled for 2022 hits my inbox and brings a smile to my face. I could do with some cheering up. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom about, wearing my heart on my sleeve (again), but it really can’t be overstated just how positive an impact a well-timed festival announcement can have, especially if that festival just happens to be situated in the most gorgeous (and arguably) perfect part of the UK.

The Aldeburgh Festival returns next year for its 73rd, spotlighting 50 years of Britten and Pears’ talent development scheme – The Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, premiering 41 new works, and celebrating what would have been the 70th birthday of the late great much-loved composer and conductor Oliver Knussen.

Artists performing include Nicola Benedetti, composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson, pianist Clare Hammond, cellist Laura van der Heijden, chamber music from the Kaleidoscope Chamber Ensemble, The Hermes Experiment, and Piatti and Solem Quartets.

Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Ivor Award-winning work Catamorphosis features in a CBSO concert. There’s music too from organist Anna Lapwood with a performance of her transcription of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. I spy too a performance on 4th June led by Mark Simpson featuring his blistering work for wind ensemble Geysir, and Mozart’s Gran Partita. There’s also a chance to hear the Echoes and Embers I heard at Lammermuir Festival earlier this year.

The press release is epic – running to 8 pages with detailed listings which are dizzying to look at. Visit the Britten Pears website and start dreaming of sunny days on the edge of a marsh looking out towards the North Sea. June 2022 looks set to be brilliant and be almost entirely based in East Suffolk.

The (kind of) 2020 Aldeburgh Festival

If memory serves me correctly, 2020 is the first time the 72-year-old Aldeburgh Festival won’t be going ahead. No surprises why. COVID.

This is notable because of the oft-told story of Benjamin Britten’s annual jamboree.

Fire at Snape Maltings Concert Hall back in 1967 on the eve of that year’s festival might have threatened proceedings. It didn’t. Triumph over adversity, etc.

Given the Maltings proximity to the North Sea there were countless occasions when flood could have brought things to an unceremonious end. It didn’t either.

Pestilence? Well. That’s a different story.

It’s easy to focus on the venues and events and the people I know who bring the thing I love to life in London. But when you receive a press release about your second home (I can’t afford a property there – I’d just like to think that at some point I might be able to) telling you what’s planned in the gaping hole created by its festival’s absence, then you’re going to stop, pause and reflect a bit.

Aldeburgh has like a good many other festivals this year, opened up its archive, reached for its digital platform and called upon its friends, associates and former colleagues to help keep the flame alight this year. There are programmes on BBC TV including, finally, a broadcast of Grimes on the Beach from a few years back (if you’ve not seen it YOU MUST), a trawl through the BBC archives for Britten on camera narrated by James Naughtie, and an intriguing invitation to recreate an artwork by John Cage from a few years back where visitors to the town got to hear multiple pieces of music all played at the same time. How delightfully John Cage.  There’s even the opportunity to submit your own memories of the festival for inclusion in a special digital timeline.

That these things are on offer is a lovely thing because they only serve to emphasise how important East Suffolk is to me. The yearning is way too much to bear (without a car to my name I can’t even justify to myself visiting my parents in their garden in West Suffolk, let alone heading to Aldeburgh Beach).

So, these warm gestures, alongside six broadcasts from yesteryear festivals, as well as the epic 1997 Radio 3 broadcast of the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano I have on cassette in my office, will have to suffice.

The Aldeburgh Festival 2020 begins in the hearts and minds of those who miss it on 12 June and runs until 28. Highlights include an ‘Opening Night’ broadcast of Britten on Camera on BBC Four followed by Struan Leslie’s Illuminations – a staging including circus performers of Britten’s Les Illuminations – seen for the first time on Britten Pears Arts’ YouTube Channel, Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be available on BBC iPlayer later this month, and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast six archive performances from Aldeburgh Festival between 19 – 26 June.