Aldeburgh has always been about the new
Contemporary music is flourishing in Aldeburgh. Thomas Adès is the Festival's artistic director, innovative programming is pulling in new audiences, traditional musical boundaries are disappearing, and an inspirational £14m ($28m) creative campus will make new music available to future generations.
Teamwork has played a vital role, but much of the credit for this success must go to Aldeburgh Music's chief executive Jonathan Reekie, who came to Suffolk in 1998 from Almeida Opera. The photo above shows Jonathan (left) talking to Bob Shingleton at Snape during this exclusive interview for On An Overgrown Path:
BS - What is 'Aldeburgh Music', and what is its remit?
JR - Aldeburgh Music was founded by the composer Benjamin Britten and singer Peter Pears in 1948, when they set up a Festival based in their home town of Aldeburgh. It’s remit draws on the original principles they established. These were to nurture talent by mixing established musical stars with emerging artists, to focus on the new, and to be rooted in the local community.
BS - How is Aldeburgh Music funded?
JR - In simple terms a third comes from box office income, a third by fundraising, and a third from the government via Arts Council England.
BS - How does the relationship between Aldeburgh Music and the Britten Pears Foundation work?
JR (below) - Aldeburgh Music looks after Britten’s “living” legacy – his Festival, the Britten–Pears Young Artist Programme, the education programmes and Snape Maltings concert hall. The Britten–Pears Foundation is our separate sister organisation, responsible for Britten’s music and archive and is based at the house in Aldeburgh where Britten and Pears lived for many years. The Foundation receives all of Britten’s royalty income, and some of it goes to supports us. We work closely together.
BS - Is Britten still an influence on contemporary festivals, and how do you decide how much of his music is programmed today at Aldeburgh?
JR- For the Festival his principles are arguably more important than his music. The principles, which I outlined previously, still guide us in what we do, and they give the Aldeburgh Festival its strong identity. The amount of his music performed depends on what feels right and fits with all the other things we want to do. There is no minimum or maximum.
BS - Looking back at the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival what do you view as the high, and low, spots?
JR - The high spots were undoubtedly Britten’s opera Death in Venice, the second Faster than Sound, and the multi-media opera Elephant and Castle. The low spots were the rain stopping the dress rehearsal of Elephant and Castle, which caused us technical problems on the first night
BS - How does your role as chief executive fit with that of Thomas Adès?
JR - Tom’s role as artistic director of the Festival is to help the programme, and to perform in the Festival in June. Mine is year-round and isn’t just artistic, but includes all the business side too. Several people contribute to the programming of the Festival including Tom and the Associate Director, John Woolrich. Aldeburgh Music’s work with young artists, residencies, and developing new opera all feed in ideas and possibilities for the Festival. I act as a gatekeeper to these ideas. Tom always has the final say.
BS - Your background includes opera at Glyndebourne and Almeida, and, as you have said, Yoshi Oida's new production of Death in Venice for this year's Aldeburgh Festival was highly acclaimed. Can more be done with opera, particularly contemporary opera at Snape? Will the new development plans help this?
JR - Opera is an artform that excites me greatly. When music, text, theatre & design combine effectively there is arguably nothing more powerful for an audience. Unfortunately it is an artform that is expensive, complicated and strong on tradition, so fewer and fewer opera companies are prepared or able to take risks. We are at the vanguard of trying to change this, and we put on more new opera than anywhere else in the UK. We also have one of the world’s only programmes for developing the opera writers of tomorrow. The new spaces we are building at Snape (below) will be great for this kind of developmental work and smaller scale opera.
BS - How do your audience demographics compare with other festivals such as the Proms and Glyndebourne.
JR- They are similar, possibly slightly older, because the population of the Suffolk coast is higher than average. They are a great audience, who listen and like to take risks.
BS - Talking of risk taking, you have pushed the boundaries into electronica, World Music and other genres. Is this a conscious strategy, and if so will it go further?
JR - Aldeburgh has always been about the new. Music is changing, boundaries between different genres are dissolving. What we are doing simply reflects this. For example the distance between the cutting edge of “contemporary classical music” (don’t you hate that phrase?) and electronica is arguably very small. They are both musicians trying to do something quite similar, just using a different set of tools.
BS - You talk about using a different set of tools. Does more extensive use of the internet figure in your plans, both for performance and promotion? And, I have to ask this question, do you read music blogs, and how do you see their role?
JR- The internet and other technologies are playing a growing part of our creative output and how we promote. We are doing quite of lot of R&D in this field, and it's just going to get more and more important. I do read blogs when I can but lack of time limits this. It's great that the stranglehold of the printed media is being released by blogs, which are bringing fresh blood to criticism and a new perspective on musical life. At last it feels we can escape the tired cynicism that traps many of the traditional media.
BS - Much has been written elsewhere about the death of classical music, yet Aldeburgh today seems to be flourishing. How do you explain this?
JR - Don’t believe what you read! Yes, in some places, where no-one takes risks, it is certainly stagnating. But at the end of the day if you only put on events that excite you, with a bit of luck they will excite an audience too. Good live music, performed by great artists, will never die. Keep a balance between the familiar and the new, and take risks.
BS - Any hints as to the direction that the 2008 Aldeburgh Festival may take?
JR - No major new directions. But highlights will include a new opera, Ocean of Rain by Yannis Kyriakides, our third Faster than Sound, lots of music by György Kurtag, and new works by Thomas Adès and John Woolrich. See you there!
Jonathan Reekie is seen above looking into the future of contemporary music. The new creative campus being built at Snape is one of the most exciting developments in classical music anywhere. Read about it here.
All photos and text (c) On An Overgrown Path 2007. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk