The Aldeburgh Connection for the Globe & Mail (May 2013)
By John Fraser 416.978.8448
Thirty-one years ago, 270 concerts ago, 5920 songs ago, two young piano accompanists began a concert series in Toronto called The Aldeburgh Connection which had the multiple aims of promoting young singers, the art of the song and the particular musical inspiration that was rooted in the famous collaboration between the great English composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears.
Last Sunday afternoon, perhaps at the apogee of success for their three-decade musical ride, the very same two gentlemen closed down the whole operation with a luminous concert at the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall where there was no standing room left anywhere. Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata decided to do something many performers and artistic directors have a hard time doing: quitting while they are still ahead.
For their elegant, moving finale, they featured Britten, of course, but also four hugely appealing young Canadian singers (Virginia Hatfield, soprano; Scott Belluz, counter-tenor; Colin Ainsworth, tenor; and Geoffrey Sirett, baritone) and the Canadian Children’s Opera Company under its redoubtable director Ann Cooper Gay. It was the same sort of classic mixture that started their experiment at the first Sunday afternoon concert in 1982 at Hart House: youth, song and making sure everyone who paid money for a concert not only got good musical value, but had a great time too. When they started offering tea and shortbread at the Sunday afternoon concerts, I have no idea, but it only added to the general aura of forceful gentility much admired by the Aldeburgh Connection’s loyalists.
I reviewed that first concert for the Globe and Mail because the Globe’s music reviewer, the late John Kraglund, knew I had my own somewhat bizarre Aldeburgh connection (from graduate student days during the late nineteen-sixties in East Anglia) and at the Globe I used to be his back-up when he wanted to make sure upstart new groups didn’t put on airs too soon. It amused Kraglund that I had once turned pages at a 1969 organ concert in one of the local Blythburgh parish churches that was part of the annual Aldeburgh Festival. Britten, Pears and the late Imogen Holst were in the audience and in addition to turning pages for the performer, Brian Runnett, the young organist of Norwich Cathedral, I was expected to pull some of the stops in the ancient tracker-action organ. Apparently, I am not at my best multi-tasking because at a close conjunction between the two tasks, I managed to flip two pages at once. The organist let out the “s” word from the organ loft as he slapped the errant page back which I learned afterwards had been clearly heard below.
Ubukata and Ralls, whose own relationship sweetly paralleled Britten and Pears, at least in terms of mutual artistic reinforcement and happy life partnership, had wonderfully legitimate connections to Aldeburgh where they had apprenticed as accompanists and got the Aldeburgh “disease” in the 1970s. It’s a condition that is now fairly universal. Benjamin Britten’s reputation since his death in 1976 has gone dramatically up in contrast to what happens to most composers in the immediate aftermath of their passing. Of all the composers of the 20th century, only Stravinsky out-performs Britten on the concert hall stage and that century includes, amongst many, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Orff, Debussy, Bartok, Copland, and Richard Strauss. Boosey and Hawkes, the famous music publishers, still send off over £1.5-million a year to Aldeburgh in Britten royalties.
However much a touchstone Britten’s compositions were to this Canadian concert series, however, the really crucial accomplishment here was not the reverence for Britten. Lots of other composers were featured throughout the three decades. It was instead the spotlight they shone on young performers that really marked Ralls and Ubukata as great and contributing Canadians, totally worthy of the membership in the Order of Canada which was awarded them a few months ago.
If you were an original subscriber to The Aldeburgh Connection, there was a chance you would have heard any of the following (alphabetically listed) singers for the first time while one of the two founding gentlemen accompanied them on the piano: Colin Ainsworth, Russell Braun, Benjamin Butterfield, Sally Dibblee, Alexander Dobson, Gerald Finley, Anita Krause, Nathalie Paulin, Adrianne Pieczonka, Brett Polegato, Catherine Robbin, Michael Schade, Daniel Taylor, James Westman and Monica Whicher.
That honour roll also poses a conundrum. As stylish as the winding down of the Aldeburgh Connection was, the nostalgic and sweet sadness at its last concert was mixed with a fair bit of hard-edged concern: there are fewer and fewer outlets on the concert stage for young singers in a city which has the largest potential audiences in Canada for this important fare. The Queen of Puddings Music Theatre is also closing up shop, and groups like the Toronto Masque Theatre and the Talisker Players struggle each year to keep a lively repertoire allied to top performances. As both Ubukata and Ralls freely admit, these extraordinary young singers train forever and get only a modest return for their artistry and professionalism. They do it, as Bruce Ubukata said, “because they are compelled by their talent.” And for a time, he added, “we had the honour to support that talent.”
Gerald Finley was in the audience last Sunday afternoon and as the emotional pitch increased during the encores, he came on stage and sang for the audience. He first sang for the Aldeburgh Connection in 1988 and in the subsequent years he has risen to the very top of the international concert stage, but this time I suspect it was mostly for the two gentlemen that he was singing. A tribute for sure, but also a big thank you.