Festival of Britten for Sheffield

To mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten,  A Boy Was Born; an extensive programme of performances and events throughout 2013,  is being organised by The University of Sheffield's Concert Series at the 'Department of Music
To mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten, A Boy Was Born; an extensive programme of performances and events throughout 2013, is being organised by The University of Sheffield's Concert Series at the 'Department of Music

EXCEPT inevitably in Aldeburgh and its immediate vicinity, the biggest Benjamin Britten centenary celebration by far in the UK this year is here, in Sheffield, details of which were announced this week.

Going under the title A Boy Was Born (one Britten’s earliest successes), it encompasses 40 concerts and events with at least one Britten work being performed at it between February and December and is being coordinated by the Department of Music at Sheffield University, which bears the brunt of festivities.

Strictly, the number is not 40; it is 35 as it includes four performances of his opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ex-university graduates and local singers) in the Winter Garden in August and three of The Turn of the Screw by Steel Opera at Firth Hall in October.

Applying the same yardstick to the 70 events actually in Aldeburgh itself (the Suffolk coastal town forever associated with Britten), taking out repeats the figure becomes 33 (34 can be argued), which makes Sheffield’s celebration the biggest anywhere.

The fact is deduced from the at-present 1,348 events, including repeats, on a Britten100 website listing events worldwide.

The number of separate events in Sheffield is actually 36 as the website doesn’t list Britten’s Piano Concerto played by Steven Osborne with the CBSO and Ilan Volkov at the City Hall on February 9.

It looks as if the main evening series of the spring leg of the Sheffield University Concert Season has at least one Britten work programmed at each concert, except the Phoenix Piano Trio on February 26, although there is tenuous a link with Ireland’s Third Piano Trio being played.

Ireland was intermittently Britten’s composition teacher at the RCM and they didn’t get on.

Encouraged by his previous teacher Frank Bridge (usually cited as the composer’s only teacher whom Ireland hated) Britten tended to follow the musical path he had been prolifically developing from a very early age.

Still, Ireland is unjustly neglected these days so the chance to hear anything by him is welcome, and bigger names than the Phoenix who have been lured to Sheffield.

The world famous Chillingirian Quartet perform Britten’s valedictory Third String Quartet on February 19 and, March 12, soprano Joan Rodgers, no less, performs his six Pushkin settings, The Poet’s Echo, along with her speciality repertoire, Russian song.

The Chillingirian’s second violin these days, by the way, is ex-Lindsay second violin Ronnie Birks.

The Sacconi Quartet offer the Purcell-inspired Second String Quartet on April 30 and, on May 5, the celebrated Natalie Clein makes her third visit to the city in as many years to perform the composer’s Cello Sonata and Cello Suite No 1 framed by two Beethoven Cello Sonatas.

Sheffield-born cellist of world repute Matthew Barley is playing the Cello Suite No 3 all over the country this year as part of a project with film and lands in his home city with it in November.

All the university’s in-house groups have concerts with at least one Britten work programmed and the pattern appears to spill over, though not to the same extent, into the lunchtime concert series, Graves Gallery series and the early evening rush-hour concerts.

Stewart Campbell, concerts manager at the university and director of the A Boy Was Born Festival, says: “Britten’s genius is manifested in his extraordinary skill in setting text to music, his revolutionising of British opera and a unique ability to write for children and amateurs as well as the world’s greatest musicians.

“I’m overwhelmed by the calibre of artists that have agreed to come to our city in this unique festival and thrilled to be presenting work from excellent orchestras and choirs in the local community that we’re collaborating with in this festival.”

Among these is the Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra, which gives a family concert hosted by well-known TV and film actress Jenny Agutter that includes Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra at Victoria Hall on June 1.

On March 9 at St Andrew’s Psalter Lane Church, The Sheffield Chorale perform a whole evening of the composer’s choral music and the Sheffield Oratorio Chorus a larger scale work, the rarely heard The Company of Heaven at Ecclesall Parish Church on June 29.

Sheffield Chamber Orchestra has Les Illuminations programmed at Bents Green Methodist Church on May 8 and the Abbeydale Singers, Five Flower Songs and Old Joe has Gone Fishing from Peter Grimes at St John’s Church, Ranmoor on July 7.

Pocket chamber choir Albion, meanwhile, will be doing its thing prompted on Britten’s folksong arrangements at Holy Trinity Methodist Church on June 15.

On May 16, a highly attractive concert (part of Music in the Round’s May Festival) finds members of Ensemble 360 involved with one of the UK’s all-conquering international tenors John Mark Ainsley for a recital of 20th century English Song, including BB’s Winter Words and Canticles 1 and 3.

All the group is on duty to perform instrumental music by the composer, including the Sinfonietta, at the Showroom cinema on May 11, but is reduced to four again for a Firth Hall concert, including the First String Quartet, on November 19, possibly as part of Sheffield University’s autumn season.

Ditto, The Utter: Jazz Collective on October 15 with a Britten/Auden evening, including On This Island and Cabaret Songs, at which another familiar face from TV Roger Lloyd Pack will be reading the poet’s work.

As space is running out, a quick mention of the St Nicolas cantata and Serenade for tenor, horn and strings from the Sheffield Bach Society at St Mark’s Church on November 23 and, among “extensive outreach and education work,” the creation of a new opera based on the children’s story Britten was fond of, Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives.