Aldeburgh has a new Artistic Director. After a decade at the helm of a music and arts festival that seems constantly to be reinventing itself, Thomas Ades has passed the baton to the French pianist, conductor and musical thinker Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The 2009 Festival is the first that bears Aimards full imprint, although continuity is assured by the ongoing presence of Associate Artistic Director John Woolrich.
This years programme, which runs from 12 to 28 June, has just been previewed to an audience of Aldeburgh faithful in the towns Jubilee Hall. Introducing the selection of programmes made by Aimard, whom he described as 'incredibly nice and interesting to work with', Jonathan Reekie, Chief Executive of Aldeburgh Music echoed (perhaps unconsciously) the famous words of EM Forster 'only connect' with his descriptions of the rationale behind much of the programming. On 13 June for example Aimard will team up with the Haffner Wind Ensemble and the Quatuor Diotima at the Maltings for an evening of music-making entitled 'Collage-Montage. Aimard has arranged in a fantasy four movement sequence two string quartet movements, by Beethoven and Bartok, with chamber music by Brahms and Messaien. An illustrative excerpt, linking the Brahms and Messaien, was certainly thought-provoking. This concert finishes with an Hommage to one of Aimards favourite composers, Gyorgy Ligeti.
'Challenging' is the adjective that many music lovers might apply to much of the programming. So perhaps it is easiest to highlight first one or two of the more conventional Festival choices. On 28 June Masaaki Suzuki will return to Snape to conduct the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra and a chorus and soloist group taken from the Snape Young Artist Programme in Bachs St Matthew Passion. On 26 June Ian Bostridge has a recital evening at the Maltings, consisting of Schumann and Brahms Heine settings, with Graham Johnson at the piano. On 22 June Antonello Manacorda conducts the Britten-Pears Orchestra in an eclectic symphonic evening of Bach arr. Webern, Haydn (Symphony no. 90), Bartok and Ravel. And the afternoon of Sunday 21 June sees Mark Padmore in a Dowland and contemporaries recital with lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, this concert being given in nearby Blythburgh Church.
There is no Britten opera this year, but the spirit of the presiding genius of all that is Aldeburgh is well represented in various ways. Of particular note are performances, throughout the Festival, of all Brittens song cycles. They are introduced in a morning talk on 15 June by Paul Kildea with Malcolm Martineau and others, and the songs themselves are given on 14 June, 23 June and 27 June in Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Church and Orford Church respectively. Performers include Allan Clayton, Jennifer Johnston, Katherine Broderick and Elizabeth Watts, with Malcolm Martineau at the piano throughout.
The major new feature of this year's Festival however will be the inauguration of the new performing spaces at Snape, culmination of a £14 million public appeal to realise and complete the original vision of Britten and Pears, the Snape Maltings Performing Arts complex. So on 12 June the Festival will launch with an operatic double bill in the brand new 350 seat Britten Studio, the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistles Semper Dowland, semper dolens and The Corridor. Reekie described the latter as a reworking of the Orpheus and Euridice 'moment, when Orpheus disobeys instructions and looks back at his love, only to lose her for ever. 'Birtwistle explores this frozen moment in time, and magnifies it, in many different ways'. As for the Semper Dowland, semper dolens, it is Birtwistles rearrangement of Dowlands Lachrymae, or more properly Seven Teares Figured in Seven Passionate Pavanes, interwoven with some of Dowlands other songs. Whether in an attempt to reassure the Aldeburgh audience or not (memories being long round here of the famous Punch and Judy premiere at the Jubilee Hall), Reekie assured us that the piece contains 'a lot of Dowland'. The Birtwistle double bill is given three further performances in the Britten Studio, on 15, 17 and 18 June, and Birtwistle is well represented on other evenings throughout the Festival.
The Festival will also premiere a major work by another living composer: On Conversing with Paradise is Elliott Carters setting of Ezra Pound poems, scored for baritone and large orchestral ensemble. Oliver Knussen will conduct the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at the Maltings on 20 June, in the presence of the 100 year old composer, with soloist Leigh Melrose. Carters visit to Aldeburgh will give rise to performances of several of his works and to a 'musical conversation between Carter and Aimard in the Britten Studio on Saturday 20 June (11.00 am). This promises to be a Festival 'event.
As does a concert on 24 June at Snape by the Ensemble Basiani of Georgia. As Reekie said by way of introduction to some recorded excerpts of this ensemble, we are relatively unfamiliar with the harmonic and tonal world of this sort of choral tradition. Harmonies and timbres shift constantly, the bass spectrum dominating of course, in music that has its natural setting in the cavernous acoustic of the Orthodox Cathedral of Tiblisi. The contrast, and the connection, is of course with the St Matthew Passion to be given four days later.
Aimards first Festival as Artistic Director is bold and in many ways uncompromising. Lovers of modern music could pick almost any three days of the extended fortnight and enjoy a field day. Monday 15 June to Wednesday 17 June sees concerts featuring Maxwell-Davies, Ligeti, Berio, Stravinsky, Viadana, Zimmermann, Kurtag and Messaien with Birtwistle, both operatic and symphonic, as a sort of leitmotif. And to perform the various pieces we have members of the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski (taking time out from Glyndebourne), Steven Osborne, Tabea Zimmermann and Christiane Oelze. If there are world class advocates for new music, Aldeburgh will surely have them in abundance. The 'connections moreover are built into almost every programme. A Haydn/Beethoven evening with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Aimard on 27 June features Stockhausens Kontra-Punkte as the sandwich filling. And a Ravel/Debussy concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under George Benjamin on 19 June also features UK premieres of pieces by Julian Anderson and George Benjamin as well as Three Occasions by Elliott Carter.
One of Aimards aims with his first Festival programme, we were told at the preview, is to 'shed new light on the known and the unknown'. One of the unknowns at this years Festival is the way that the new performing spaces will actually work, and some Festival time has been set aside to exploring the built space (13 June: Harrisons Clocks: a Promenade through a New Building). It will also be both exciting and challenging to launch the Britten Studio with a new opera. So full marks to Aimard and to the Aldeburgh team for their readiness to take risks in these uncertain economic times. The 62nd Aldeburgh Festival will certainly not be dull.
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