The best of Britten

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AS SOMEONE who admits to a lifelong obsession with Benjamin Britten, Stewart Campbell was thrilled to discover that the Sheffield festival he has organised to mark the composer’s birth is probably the biggest in the UK.

“According to the main Britten website, we’ve got more events than everybody else in the country. It’s quite exciting but it was never the intention. We’ve also got quite a broad range of events but he did so much, including songs, operas and huge orchestral works – and works for children. I was keen to encompass all aspects of his work.”

Stewart is concerts manager at the University of Sheffield and director of the festival, called A Boy is Born after Britten’s Op.3, one of his first works to gain recognition.

He has attracted some big names from the worlds of music, theatre and literature, reflecting the fact that Britten used a lot of poetry in his work. They include film and TV star Jenny Agutter, most recently seen in BBC series Call the Midwife, Roger Lloyd Pack from Only Fools and Horses and The Vicar of Dibley, internationally-renowned cellist Natalie Clein, top string ensemble The Chilingirian Quartet and playwright, poet and Professor of Poetry at the university Simon Armitage.

Stewart said: “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 the masses, in addition to his thrilling performances and interpretations of his own and other’s works.

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

He said he wanted to use the festival as a chance to showcase a lot of local talent and the wealth of groups that produce great music in Sheffield but aren’t necessarily widely recognised.

He said: “Sheffield doesn’t perhaps have a reputation outside the city. There is a lot that goes on and we should be proud of that.”

The 20 groups include Sheffield Chorale, Sheffield Chamber Orchestra, Hallam Sinfonia, Sheffield Young Singers and Sheffield Bach Choir.

Stewart has also involved city schools, targeting those where access to music is limited. They have worked with Sheffield Cathedral’s outreach initiative, Sing!, to create and perform the premiere of Emil and the Detectives.

The work is based on a German children’s story that Britten loved and he intended to write a piece inspired by it himself.

Stewart said: “One of Britten’s strengths was his work in music education. He revolutionised that and inspired generations of children.”

He added: “I’ve lived his music all my life. One of my first solo concerts as a boy chorister was Britten.

“The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was one of my first records, in vinyl. I remember being absolutely bewitched by this music. The centenary has been on my radar for quite a while. I’m really, really proud.”

Stewart said: “One of the strengths of Britten’s music is he really did compose to the masses. The themes that Britten deals with are of individuals against society. People resonate with that. He composed at a time when European composers were getting lost in avant garde surrealism. Britten created a very distinct sound world that’s very accessible.

“Britten’s music is a remarkable melodic gift. He composes with exactly right notes and never too many notes.

“He was also a great admirer of poetry and wrote music for works by Auden, Forster and Hardy. I love Winter Words with poetry by Thomas Hardy – they are very bleak, beautiful, graphic poems.

“In one, Midnight on the Great Western, you can hear the train whistles in the piano part. In The Choirmaster’s Funeral, you can hear his favourite hymn woven into the texture underneath. It’s ingenious.”

A Boy Was Born takes place in venues around the city and runs from Tuesday, February 19, to Sunday, December 15.

For more information, go to www.aboywasborn.co.uk.

There is a timeline of Britten’s life and recordings of some of his music on the website, including some of the composer’s own performances.