The Benjamin Britten Arts Festival was launched on 25th November 2012 to commemorate the centenary of Old Greshamian (OG) Benjamin Britten’s birth in 2013. As a pupil in Farfield between 1928 and 1930, and just before Britten studied at the Royal College of Music, Gresham’s stands in a unique position in the composer’s life.
What happened during the Festival of Britten at Gresham’s…
Not only did Gresham’s musicians perform Britten’s music locally in 2013, but also across East Anglia, in Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. Britten’s music also featured heavily in the programme taken to cathedrals across Belgium by the Prep School’s choir over Easter. Gresham’s has also welcomed a number of notable musicians to work with students and to give performances over the course of the festival.
Our Britten Festival included performances of the St Nicolas cantata in North Norfolk, one which included choirs from both the Senior and Prep School with tenor soloist Julian Forbes, and one with Sheringham & Cromer Choral Society, the Prep School Jiminies and tenor Paul Smy.
War Requiem was performed in February, conducted by Mark Jones and with soloists Rosamund Walton (soprano), Ben Thapa (tenor), and Robert Davies (baritone). With over 300 singers and orchestral musicians and a capacity audience of 400, it was a stunning highlight of the festival.
In April, the award-winning choir from Longmeadow High School, Massachusetts, USA, visited the school to give a joint concert with the Senior School’s Schola Cantorum. The highlight of their performance was Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, written by the young composer in the sickroom of Farfield House in 1930.
The recital given by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at Gresham’s in 1964 was recreated in May 2013 by the tenor Thomas Hobbs and former Director of Music, Mark Jones. This event was particularly poignant being on the same stage in Big School as the original concert, with the same musical programme, and amongst the packed audience, a handful of OGs in the audience who remembered the event from their school-days.
Along with these major events, the festival also welcomed speakers from the Britten-Pears Foundation and Aldeburgh Music to the MMA area conference held at the school in February, and in November 2012, helped launch the Friday Afternoons education project with a choral day for London prep schools, held in Fishmongers’ Hall, London. Other collaborative events saw over 20 local schools attending music workshops at the school, with repertoire including Britten’s Psalm 150 and Friday Afternoons. Our own musicians from Year 4, 5 and 6 also attended composition workshops with the Britten Sinfonia in Holt and Norwich.
Gresham’s Britten 100 exhibition visited The Forum in Norwich as well as being displayed at every school festival event, and in April, the School released its own unique First Day Cover, designed by international stamp designer Jennifer Toombs MCSD, which features the Royal Mail’s new Britten postage stamp.
Capriol Film’s drama-documentary Benjamin Britten, Peace and Conflict was released in May 2013. Largely filmed at Gresham’s in Autumn 2012, School pupils and staff enjoyed contributing to the filming and working with the likes of pianist Iain Burnside, tenor James Gilchrist and Hollywood legend, John Hurt.
The third annual International Britten Music Course took place at Gresham’s Prep School in July 2013 with Tom Appleton (Old Greshamian, Monteverdi Choir) and the European Union Chamber Orchestra.
November saw the culmination of the festival with many more concerts, including whole-school performances of Noye’s Fludde and a special concert of music written by Britten whilst he was a boy at the school preceded by a talk given by Britten’s nephew, John Britten.
To celebrate Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday, on 22nd November an event was held in the Auden Theatre where Norfolk primary schools, along with Gresham’s Prep School choir, sang a number of songs from Britten’s Friday Afternoons. The project was led by former Director of Music Outreach at Gresham’s, Tom Appleton (also guest conductor of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and member of the Monteverdi Choir).
Gresham’s also featured as part of BBC Radio 3’s Britten Centenary weekend on 23rd and 24th November; you can view a slideshow on their website.