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Norfolk celebrating 100 years of Benjamin Britten

PUBLISHED: 09:18 23 November 2012

Composer Benjamin Britten. Image: hans Wild/Britten-Pears Foundation

Composer Benjamin Britten. Image: hans Wild/Britten-Pears Foundation

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His roots were firmly in East Anglia so it is fitting that events celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten are promoted across Norfolk and Suffolk. Ahead of a concert by the UEA Symphony Orchestra, RACHEL BANHAM reports.

His earliest years were spent living by the sea in north Suffolk, and much of his inspiration came from his coastal surroundings.

Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft on November 22, 1913. His Simple Symphony is made up of pieces he wrote as a child growing up in the town, and was first performed at Stuart Hall (now part of Cinema City) in Norwich when he was 21.

Pat Nicholson and her late husband John were friends of Britten – the two men were pupils at South Lodge School in Lowestoft. She played the cello with the Waveney Sinfonia from its beginnings until she retired about five years ago.

She said: “I think even as quite a small boy — living on the cliffs as he did — he was very influenced by the sea. He used to go for walks on the beach.

“He lived there only until he was about 14 or 15. He used to come to Lowestoft to show people where he’d lived.”

Familiar Fields is a year-long celebration of Britten’s centenary, starting this autumn and running until the actual anniversary in autumn 2013, bringing together performances of his works by professional and amateur organisations across Norfolk and Suffolk.

Britten’s music, which owes so much to this his favourite part of England, offers richly rewarding experiences — from music for children to grand opera, from intimate chamber pieces to large scale orchestral and choral works.

All this will be reflected in the celebrations.

Over the year there will be more than 180 performances, large and small, of 88 different Britten works. Highlights will include orchestral showpieces, opera, chamber music, concert recreations and recitals and a number of rarities and works rarely heard.

Among those rare works will be Britten’s Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra which will be performed by the UEA Symphony Orchestra at St Andrew’s Hall next Friday, alongside Elgar/Payne Symphony No 3.

Britten wrote the Double Concerto at the age of 18 but never realised the orchestral parts, nor sought to have it performed. It was not until 1997, that Colin Matthews completed the scoring of the work and it received its premier in Aldeburgh.

Sharon Andrea Choa will conduct the UEA Symphony Orchestra, who will be joined by highly acclaimed soloists, Simon Smith (violin) and Paul Silverthorne (viola).

This month St Peter Mancroft Church will host the Viva Voce Singers performing Britten’s (Nov 24, 7.30pm), while the Britten Sinfonia will give a lunchtime concert of Phantasy Quartet (Nov 30, 1pm).

Among the many other Norwich celebrations of Britten over the coming 12 months will be performances of his celebrated Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (Dec 8), the Violin Concerto (Mar 2) and The Sword and the Stone (Mar 7).

There will be recital and performances from renowned musicians like the Maggini Quartet (Jan 19/20), Mark Padmore (Feb 15) and a Glyndebourne’s production of The Rape of Lucretia (Nov 2013).

Many Britten works will heard more than once during the year, especially choral pieces which feature prominently in concerts by choral societies and visiting choirs. These will include the dramatic War Requiem which will be performed at Gresham’s (Mar 10) and Norwich (Nov 9), with a further performance planned for Bury St Edmunds during 2013.

Britten wrote a vast amount in just about every genre but he wanted his music to be ‘useful, and to the living’ and so much of it is direct and appealing. The emotional impact of the War Requiem struck such a chord with the general public that over 200,000 copies of its first recording were sold in the 12 months after its première in 1962.

Another place with a special link to Britten is Gresham’s School in Holt, where while Britten was a pupil he first started composing in earnest.

The school’s centenary celebrations for Britten will highlight the composer’s choral music. Highlights include a re-creation of a recital given by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten of Winter Words and Three Old English Characters in 1964 (May 31) An evening entitled A Joy To Us All (Nov 15, 2013) – a phrase used by Britten’s headmaster in his end of year report in 1930 — will also see John Britten, Britten’s nephew, will give a talk before a concert featuring music written during his time at the school, including unpublished songs. It will conclude with Farfield – Britten’s personal tribute to his boarding house, composed in 1955.

Familiar Fields aims to engage younger listeners too, reflecting Britten’s passion for producing music for children. His charming cycle of children’s songs, Friday Afternoons, will be the focus of a special educational project and there will be public performances in Norwich (Jun 8) and Great Yarmouth (Jun 24).

In addition a performance of The Little Sweep will be given in Norwich by Wymondham Youth Music (Mar 16), while his children’s opera Noye’s Fludde will be performed by Suffolk schoolchildren in a concert organised by Aldeburgh Music at St Margaret’s Church in his native Lowestoft (Nov 21-23, 2013).

Jonathan Reekie, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music, said: “It’s where he was born and we just wanted to do something really significant and exciting in Lowestoft. Noye’s Fludde is still an incredibly popular piece that’s performed all over the world regularly by children.

“I think the idea of children from Lowestoft doing it, including some from the Benjamin Britten High School, is really exciting.”

Thousands of children at Kirkley High School in Lowestoft learned about Britten, from Alan Zipfel, who was head of music at the school for 30 years until 2007.

Speaking of the appeal of composer’s work, he said: “I think it’s so special because it was so realistic. For example, in the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, he is trying to represent the sound of seagulls…and I really do think you can hear the seagulls when you are listening to the music.”

■ UEA Symphony Orchestra, St Andrew’s Hall, November 23, 7.30pm, £14-£5, 01603 508050, www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk

■ Full details of events visit the Familiar Fields website at: www.familiarfields.org.

■ Britten-Pears Foundation’s special centenary website is at: www.britten100.org

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