Playing: Symphony No 2 in C minor, Op 17 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
BBC Radio 3

Brown bread and circuses - the BBC SO at Snape

BBC Symphony Orchestra

River and reed beds at Snape Maltings

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall with the inside track on the orchestra's contribution to the Britten Centenary Weekend.

As part of the BBC's Britten 100 celebrations, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and chorus travelled up to Suffolk to give two concerts in the Maltings Concert Hall, in the tiny village of Snape, four miles from Britten's home at Aldeburgh.

The main concert (on Friday, the actual anniversary), comprised Britten's Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, his Spring Symphony, the Cantata Academica and a new work by musical polymath Ryan Wigglesworth.

The orchestra has been coming to Snape since the 1960s when the Maltings was converted into the wonderful venue it is today. It really is a magical place and though it was cold outside, the autumn sun shone brightly and lit up the surrounding fields, making the River Alde at Snape glitter.

Conducting the Friday night concert was Oliver Knussen, who not only knew Britten personally but has long lived in the area. He imparted a bit of local knowledge when breaking into a misty-eyed reverie during the quiet central passage in the Sea Interludes: ‘It occurred to me while I was walking down by the river near here that it was the noise of the halyards on the sailing boats flapping against the mast that inspired Britten to write those fast quavers...’ Well, sounds plausible enough - with all the boats around, that noise is almost constant.

Ollie painstakingly goes bar-by-bar through Ryan Wigglesworth's new piece – Locke's Theatre  –processing through it from left to right. At one point the composer interrupts, asking the violins not to use vibrato –  ‘Oh, sorry,’  says Ollie: ‘Forget what I said about that Stokowski sound, he wants brown bread à la Norrington...’ With rueful smiles exchanged and brown bread duly served, Ollie moves on to the choral pieces we'll perform with the BBC Symphony Chorus – the Cantata Academica and the Spring Symphony. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, our mezzo has got laryngitis so we are very grateful to Christine Rice for stepping in at the eleventh hour.’ Rounds of applause are delivered and we also welcome the boy and girl choristers from Norwich Cathedral. They are also singing in the Spring Symphony, a riotous piece which not only contains a part for Cow Horn, but is the only choral piece I know of that contains the word, ‘phlebotomy’. This piece brings the house down and seems a fitting tribute on this special day.

Phil concentrating hard. Photo: BBC/Tricia Yourkevich

Next morning the orchestra reassembles, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 9.30 for a final rehearsal of the Family Concert; an hour of popular Britten pieces interspersed with new choral pieces by three young composers sung by local school choirs. The concert finishes with probably Britten's most famous piece: the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, known affectionately as ‘YPG’. These days it is rarely narrated, but CBBC presenter Johny Pitts makes an excellent job of a humorous updated version of the text, putting smiles on to the faces of both orchestra and audience.  A happy way to end our contribution to this joyful celebration of one of this country's greatest composers.


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