A joyous celebration of Britten’s stirring music

The Benjamin Britten Centenary Concert at Ardingly College, featuring LPO Future First Musicians and VOCES8.
The Benjamin Britten Centenary Concert at Ardingly College, featuring LPO Future First Musicians and VOCES8.

Superb singers and musicians joined forces at Ardingly College Chapel to celebrate the brilliant music of Benjamin Britten on Thursday, November 21.

The Ardingly College Choirs were joined by the acclaimed octet VOCES 8 and The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Foyle Future Firsts.

Benjamin Britten’s godson, Michael Berkeley, now Lord Berkeley, introduced the show by talking about the appeal of Britten’s music and sharing some childhood memories from his time singing for Britten as a chorister in Westminster Cathedral.

The music began with one of Britten’s instrumental pieces – the dramatic yet soothing Sinfonietta Op 1 (1932).

Then, the pupils of Ardingly College sang the word “cuckoo” sweetly and confidently to start a beautiful version of Friday Afternoons Op 7 (1935).

This was followed by VOCES8 performing a stirring version of A Hymn To The Virgin (1930) and the musicians performing an enigmatic instrumental piece called Seven (2007) by Michael Berkeley.

Britten’s Jubilate Deo in C (1961) brought back the joyous notes and lead into a glorious performance of Listen, Listen O My Child – a piece composed by Michael Berkeley for the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013.

Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols Op 28 (1942) followed, which included a beautiful performance by Olivia Jageurs on the harp.

The evening came to a close with one of Britten’s most popular works, Rejoice In The Lamb Op 30 (1943), which prompted a huge round of applause.

Speaking to The Mid Sussex Times after the show, Michael Berkeley praised the performances of everyone involved.

He said: “I thought it was fantastic. It was a very well-balanced programme with moments of stillness and moments of elation and I thought it was wonderfully well performed.”

He continued: “Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb is a marvellous coming together of everything at the end. It’s also a piece in which all his skill comes to the fore – the way he binds everything up – so I particularly enjoyed that.

“Rather immodestly, I loved hearing the choir perform the anthem I did for the Enthronement of The Archbishop.”

Michael, who was appointed a CBE for services to music in 2012, and a non-party political member of the House of Lords in 2013, said he has fond memories of Benjamin Britten, who sent him postcards from all over the world and “never forgot a birthday”.

He said: “I remember him with enormous affection and I just feel very privileged really to have been so close to such an extraordinary great composer.”

Britten had a “colossal influence” on Michael’s approach to music.

Michael explained: “Every time one of Britten’s scores came out my father would show me how he achieved certain effects in it – sort of technical things like how he’d hold the bassoon or the horn through the harmony.”

Michael also said it was important to him that Britten wrote music that was useful and could be performed simply.

He said: “I’m still learning actually that less is more. That’s the great lesson from him, I think. That you don’t need millions of notes, that you can do it with just the right notes.”

Michael continued: “I think that, over and above the technical skill that I’ve mentioned, Britten wrote music that speaks to people, that touches them, that goes straight to the heart.”

“He had an ability to make you feel that the music somehow is transcending everyday life,” he said.

“Britten had an ability to write ideas out straight away, which were instantly memorable, and he had the skill technically to do it in such a way that it comes back off the page when it’s in the hands of singers and instrumentalists.

“That’s the skill I think – knowing exactly what will work.

“It’s like a great sportsman who knows that if he puts a certain spin on a ball it’ll do a certain thing, or a painter who knows that by mixing certain colours on a palette you’ll get a different colour.

“Britten knew how to do that with the orchestra.”

By Lawrence Smith