In the Media

Aldeburgh’s 30 years of musical adventure

Stephen Ralls, left, and Bruce Ubukata at their 1862 piano. – Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

If memory serves, heroin was the drug of choice in that Oscar-winning film The French Connection. In the Toronto concert series known as The Aldeburgh Connection it is clearly music.

The latter title is less an homage to the cinematic exploits of Gene Hackman than an acknowledgment of the fateful meeting, nearly three and a half decades ago, of two pianists in  Aldeburgh, the medieval English coastal town inescapably associated with the music of Benjamin Britten.

Stephen Ralls was already an established figure there, working as a pianist and vocal coach at the Britten-Pears School and taking part in the festivals that continue to this day to draw music lovers to the Suffolk shores of Aldeburgh Bay, when a fellow keyboardist from Ontario arrived named Bruce Ubukata.

They not only struck up a personal friendship, Ubukata subsequently introduced Ralls to James Craig, then head of the Opera Division of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, which act led in turn to a secure university job in Toronto at a time when similar employment proved elusive in his native England

Neither man forgot Aldeburgh. Indeed, they continued to return annually to participate in its musical activities. You can even hear the younger Ralls playing the important piano part in the Decca/London world premiere recording of Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice. Meanwhile, they decided to give Toronto a taste of Suffolk by establishing a concert series focused on the kind of music-making associated with their summer destination, finding no more logical name for it than The Aldeburgh Connection.

The next concert in the series takes place a week Sunday in the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall, with soprano Joni Henson, tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone James Westman taking part in a program featuring the songs of Franz Liszt, himself celebrating his 200th birthday this year.

At the keyboard, as usual, will be either Ralls or Ubukata, supporting singers they have either discovered, coached or championed, if not all three. Not for nothing did Opera Canada present them last year with one of its Rubies, an award recognizing their important role in the cultivation of Canadian vocal talent.

This season marks the 30th anniversary of The Aldeburgh Connection, its apex potentially a Feb. 19 gala concert at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall at which no fewer than 16 leading Canadian singers will perform solos, duets and ensembles, culminating in a collective performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ecstatic Serenade to Music.

It would have been difficult to imagine such an event back in Feb. 21, 1982, when the two pianists were joined by four singers at Hart House to launch their enterprise.

“We were incredibly naive,” recalls Ralls. “We thought invitations to do more concerts would pour in. They didn’t .”

The two collaborators nevertheless persevered, with some help from the Canada-Aldebugh Foundation, the Canada Council and supporters who admired their verbally enhanced, thematic approach to concert presentation.

A glance at the current season’s brochure gives a clue to this approach. Consider, for example, the final Walter Hall concert, April 29, titled A Country House Weekend.

Inspired by Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow, a thinly disguised evocation of a house party given by Lady Ottoline Morrell, the program seeks to suggest the romance and nostalgia of English life between the two world wars, drawing on music by John Ireland, Frank Bridge, Peter Warlock, William Walton and, of course, the young Benjamin Britten.

Literary and historical research precedes each Aldeburgh Connection concert but perhaps none more dramatically than a concert given several years ago exploring the strong connection between the novelist Jane Austen and music.

As Ubukata recalls, he and his Aldeburgh co-artistic director travelled all the way to the Austen house museum in England to examine the music their subject had meticulously copied out in her own hand (buying published copies being beyond her modest budgetary means).

Discovering that the last of the Austens, descended from her brother, lived in Victoria, B.C., they travelled as well to Canada’s west coast and discovered in that hospitable elderly lady’s possession the actual lap desk at which the writer had done much of her writing.

The desk now resides in the British Museum. Its family owners are history. But with three decades of such musical adventures behind them, Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata show no signs of abandoning their joint enterprise.

When they were in Aldeburgh this season they attended a performance of Britten’s Albert Herring, starring a talented young Canadian tenor previously unknown to them.

Don’t be surprised if, in the seasons ahead, they help the rest of us get to know Christopher Mayell.

William Littler