Rhinegold Photo credit: Philip Vile

Rebecca Ranson

Space, time and creativity: the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme

8:00, 3rd May 2017

It is 25 years since composers Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews devised the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme’s Composition and Performance course. Rebecca Ranson discovers how it brings creativity and reflection to the fore for its young players and composers

As locations go, there are few as inspiring as the corner of Suffolk where Benjamin Britten and his partner, the singer Peter Pears, made their home. Shortly after the composer’s death in 1976, Pears established the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in Snape, inviting young singers and instrumentalists to study and train during short courses with established performers, including himself.

In 1992, a new course was devised by composers Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews which sought to bring together young composers and instrumentalists with a keen interest in performing contemporary music. The course was a huge success (the first intake included Thomas Adès) and it has continued to run biannually ever since, making it the longest-running course offered by what is now known as the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme (BPYAP).

The course lasts ten days and has two strands. First, a 16-piece instrumental ensemble works with conductor Jonathan Berman on a wide range of pieces from the last 100 years. There is also a group of eminent tutors, including cellist Zoë Martlew, oboist Melinda Maxwell and horn player Michael Thompson on hand. ‘It’s hard work,’ says Emily Mummery, course producer and a full-time member of staff at BPYAP. ‘They will have to use some extended techniques, so we try to send them the music far in advance so they can get their heads round it. It’s tough but an amazing experience.’

Meanwhile, the composers bring a sketch of an idea with them which they will develop during their time in Snape to produce a piece for the ensemble. ‘We take six or seven composers each year,’ says Mummery. ‘Ten days is a short amount of time really so it’s very intense for them.’

Application is by submitting two or three scores, with course director Oliver Knussen ‘looking for a lively imagination, a freshness of approach and personality.’ Knussen continues to direct the course with Colin Matthews.

Of the seven composers who have been chosen this year, five are British, with one American and a London-based Finn. ‘Most are coming to the end of their undergraduate studies or have just started their postgrad, so it’s still very early on,’ says Mummery. ‘Olly and Colin like them to be unestablished – they think they can make more impact and benefit them more at this stage rather than later on.’

Demand for a place in the instrumental ensemble is also extremely high. ‘We get applications from all over the place,’ says Mummery. ‘They are mostly graduates or postgraduate students from throughout Europe and America. The quality is amazing.’

2015 BPYAP composer Jack Sheen leads, with Oliver Knussen and other tutors in background Photo: Sam Murray-Sutton
2015 BPYAP composer Jack Sheen leads, with Oliver Knussen and other tutors in background
Photo: Sam Murray-Sutton


However, the composers and instrumentalists do not work in isolation. Throughout the ten days, sessions are scheduled for the composers to have their pieces workshopped by the ensemble with Knussen and Matthews present. This process is a huge advantage for the composers, says 2015 course alumni Freya Waley-Cohen: ‘Being a composer on the BPYAP course meant that I had a chance to work extremely closely with a sinfonietta ensemble, reworking and workshopping sketches each day until they became a piece.

‘I feel that I personally took a big step forward in my music during those ten days, both in daring to bring forward a stronger conception of personal style and in a more versatile approach to orchestration. This was hugely helped by having possibly the best person alive today to give advice on such things in Oliver Knussen – leading the sessions and suggesting subtle changes in orchestration which we then had the chance to try out.’

Sarah Saviet, an American-born violinist who now lives and works in Cologne, played in the ensemble on the same course. ‘I had begun to cultivate a focus on performing contemporary music towards the end of my master’s studies. The course sounded like an ideal situation to gain more experience playing contemporary repertoire, as well as to meet and collaborate with a new pool of composers.

‘I can’t speak highly enough about the course and the experience I had while in Aldeburgh. Everything moved at an extremely fast pace – we had to read new versions of each composer’s piece every day as well as preparing a mountain of other repertoire for the final concert.’

This sense of collaboration continues beyond the ten days spent in Suffolk. ‘Many friendships I made while on the course have turned into exciting working relationships,’ says Saviet. ‘I have already commissioned pieces from several of the composers I met in Aldeburgh, and am sure that our collaborations will continue.’

Facilities are excellent, with nine practice rooms plus studio rooms giving the composers their own space in which to work. Rehearsals take place in the new Britten Studio, with its excellent acoustic – ‘very important if one is trying to gauge the sound of a new idea,’ says Knussen.

The course concludes with a final performance, where contemporary repertoire that the ensemble has been rehearsing and the composers’ pieces are performed. The compositions will then continue to be developed over the following months to be performed at the 2018 Aldeburgh Festival – a great moment for any up-and-coming composer.

Feedback from participants continually refers to the opportunity to switch off from the outside world for ten precious days, in such an inspirational place, as well as the amount of time spent with Knussen and Matthews. The young musicians are also accommodated together – ‘it’s quite a bonding experience,’ says Mummery – and the icing on the cake is that fees, travel, accommodation and one meal a day are covered, making the course accessible to anyone, from anywhere.

After 25 years at the helm, it seems only right to give Knussen the final word. ‘One composer, many years ago, spent much of the first five days or so banging various bits of slate together in the yard, and we thought he was possibly a bit crazy. Then a few days later he wrote one chord – one chord – for prepared piano. At this point I privately gave up hope. But then, one day before the concert, he instrumented the single chord, and added the prepared piano chiming from time to time, and the bits of slate clicking away on top, and the result was pure magic. I actually conducted the premiere of the resulting piece with the London Sinfonietta a few years later, and have conducted it again since.’


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