Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Who can turn Aldeburgh skies back and begin again?


Swamped by the final echoes of the Britten centenary celebrations was the news that the chief executive of Aldeburgh Music for the past sixteen years Jonathan Reekie is leaving in March. Over the years On An Overgrown Path has enthused about many of the projects that Jonathan has headed, and the photo above was taken when I interviewed him for a 2007 post.

Although Jonathan's highest profile project was this year's Britten centenary culminating in Grimes on the Beach - "a triumph against the odds" - his most lasting legacy will be the new performance spaces at Snape which he masterminded. These new spaces, with the Britten Studio as the jewel in the crown, exhibit an acoustic excellence and environmental sensitivity which Benjamin Britten would most definitely have approved of. New music has been passionately promoted by Jonathan, with the highlights including the Faster than Sound presentations at RAF Bentwater and in the Britten Studio, Chris Watson's experiments with liquid space, and Exaudi performing John Cage's Song Books. Snape residencies curated by him have also been extraordinarily productive as has Aldeburgh Music's work with young musicians, with the much-missed Sir Colin Davis' performance of Elgar's First Symphony featuring players drawn from the Guildhall School of Music and Royal Academy of Music providing not just a highlight of Jonathan's tenure but also, for this hardened blogger, one of the great musical experiences of decades of concert going. His projects have also embraced non-classical music, and the summer workshop by the Tashi Lhunpo Buddhist monks was, for some of us, literally life changing.

But there cannot be risk taking without disappointments. The appointment of the immensely talented and very bankable but Britten-lite Pierre-Laurent Aimard as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival in the run-up to the Britten centenary raised many eyebrows, and some of those eyebrows remain raised. A dalliance with the über-cool TEDx movement left this blogger at least feeling distinctly chilly, while the launch of Britten centenary cufflinks and iPhone covers seems strangely at odds with Aldeburgh Music's positioning as "a place of energy and inspiration for music and the arts".

As well as being committed to a fearless creative agenda Jonathan, who received a CBE for services to music this year, is also a wily politician. He slipped perfectly into the role pioneered by Benjamin Britten himself of projecting Aldeburgh as an unorthodox alternative to the music establishment, while actually running it as integral part of the ultra-orthodox music establishment. Classical music, whether in a metropolis or on the Suffolk marshes, is big business, and big businesses need big money from the establishment. One third of Aldeburgh's £7m annual budget comes from the Arts Council and one third comes from external fundraising. As in any major arts organisation the chief executive at Aldeburgh answers to a controlling council and, despite Snape's bucolic and alternative image, this council is very much money and establishment oriented.

President of Aldeburgh Music is Lord Stevenson of Coddenham; his chairmanship of failed bank HBOS attracted much criticism and he currently lists consultancy to Universal Music in his parliamentary declaration of interests and is a director of Glyndebourne Productions. Council chairman is financial 'rainmaker' Simon Robey who at Morgan Stanley earned a reported bonus of up to £10m; as well as continuing with his rainmaking Robey now holds the key posts at the Royal Opera House of chairman of the trustees and member of the finance and audit committee. Another Aldeburgh Music council member David Robbie is a former non-executive director of the BBC, while also on the council is Laura Wade-Gery, whose CV includes time at supermarket giant Tesco and who now combines her day job of executive director e-commerce at Marks & Spencer with a directorship at the Royal Opera House - is this starting to sound repetitive? I guess with that M & S connection we should just be thankful that the Britten centenary merchandise, which includes a designer shopping bag, does not extend to underwear.

I wish Jonathan Reekie the very best of luck in his new role as director of Somerset House Trust. He leaves a truly impressive legacy at Aldeburgh Music that will outlast memories of the valuable but transitory Britten centenary celebrations, and his successor will have a very difficult job matching, yet alone surpassing, his many achievements. That new chief executive will also have his hands full as helmsman of Aldeburgh Music steering a straight course that avoids the many well-established and dangerous sandbanks lurking off Britten's beloved Suffolk coast. Because with the centenary celebrations so effectively done and dusted, it is time for Aldeburgh to redress the balance between ultra-orthodox establishment and unorthodox alternative. Or, in the words of Peter Grimes at the end of Act One:

Now the great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief,
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher,
In storm or starlight,
The written character
of a friendly fate –--
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope' s bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?
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