In the Media

Three-concert Benjamin Britten festival a fitting swan song for Toronto’s Aldeburgh Connection

An old mechanical wall clock in the adjoining room chimes six-o’clock, prompting Bruce Ubukata to exclaim how the timepiece came from the home of Joan Cross, the woman who originated the role of Ellen Orford in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, in 1945.

“She had bought it with Ben and Peter [Pears] in Glyndebourne,” he adds.

Ubukata and Stephen Ralls, life partners and co-founders of Toronto’s Aldeburgh Connection, are sitting in their well-appointed Seaton Village living room fresh from putting the finishing touches on their Britten Festival of Song, which gets underway on Friday, April 26 at the Glenn Gould Studio and concludes May 26 at Walter Hall.

That final concert will also mark the conclusion of Aldeburgh Connection’s 31-year-history, one written and heard in more than 100 concerts centred around the art of the song.

That the final three events feature the music of Benjamin Britten is central to Ralls and Ubukata’s story and their concert series.

Ralls says that nothing could have been more natural than to combine the celebrations around Britten’s centenary with a natural conclusion of their lives as concert presenters.

“Better to go out when things are really going well and one is appreciated and you can organize it on your own terms,” says Ralls. “This Britten year seemed a fitting way to have a kind of grand finale.”

“It’s been a bit intense, really,” adds Ubukata, referring to a schedule in recent years that involved five or six concerts during the main season in Toronto with as many as 17 concerts in Bayfield, on Georgian Bay in the summer. “Maybe it’s time to enjoy a bit of space and travel and all the rest of it.”

The couple also has the massive task ahead of organising three decades of archives (including recordings of nearly every concert) that chronicle the unique Aldeburgh Connection themed programmes — each one a curation of song and word into something entertaining as well as insightful.

With Ubukata and Ralls acting as narrators and accompanists, each programme gently but deliberately conjured the sights, sounds and recorded impressions of other times and places — always with an edge of wit.

The final three concerts will do the same, focused on Benjamin Britten, his partner Peter Pears, the music they made together, the seaside town in Suffolk where they lived and built an enduring musical base — and the special connections from Aldeburgh that Ralls and Ubukata have carried from there to three-and-a-half decades together in Toronto.

Ralls, a native Briton, arrived at Aldeburgh to work as a rehearsal pianist for the first time in the fall of 1972, four years before Britten’s death. Rehearsals for the opera Death in Venice started a few months after that. This set the stage for Ralls’ first meeting with the composer.

“It was in the middle of when we were doing Death in Venice performances, and I was having brush-up rehearsals with Peter Pears, whose memory was not perfect at that point,” Ralls recalls. “So I went up before one run of performances to Aldeburgh to have some rehearsals and Peter said he would pick me up at the station. In the car was Britten, as well. So there was no time for a full build-up.”

Although some people have described Britten as cranky in his final years, Ralls remembers him as charming: “He tried to put me at my ease and congratulated me about what I was doing.”

Ubukata chimes in an anecdote about how Britten once hid from view during a rehearsal so as to not put a new accompanist on edge.

Ralls is the pianist in the original recording of Death in Venice, which was made in 1974. The composer, who was having serious heart problems, was too weak to sit in the studio, so had been hooked up with a remote audio feed.

“These dictates would come through from the composer. Such and such too loud. Such and such not together kind of thing, like the word coming down from Olympus,” Ralls recalls. “That was a little bit terrifying for all concerned. It would probably have been easier on us had he been there listening to the sessions. But he was the composer and he knew this was his last great work, and he wanted it right. His rigour was perfectly understandable.”

The conductor was Steuart Bedford, who led the 2010 Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice. “He was a wonderful intermediary, because Steuart knew Britten better than almost anybody and would round off the corners, as it were.”

Through Bedford, Britten and Pears, Ralls quickly became steeped in the composer’s musical language and its interpretation.

Ralls and Ubukata at Aldeburgh in 1977
Ralls and Ubukata at Aldeburgh in 1977.

Toronto boy Ubukata arrived at Aldeburgh in the summer of 1977 as an observer — and almost immediately found himself working there as a pianist alongside Ralls. There was chemistry.

The Londoner came to visit Canada, got himself a job at University of Toronto and the two were living together here by the fall of 1978.

“Once I met Bruce it happened really, really quickly, in just over 12 months,” smiles Ralls.

“He was clear-minded an full of courage,” quips Ubukata.

Adds Ralls, “It was a sort of leap of faith.”

“That part of one’s life seems to stretch out enormously in time,” Ralls says of his late 20s and early 30s. “But looking back on it now, it’s astonishing how bunched up all of these events were.”

Ubukata and Ralls would return to Aldeburgh many times until Pears’s death in 1986. During those years of helping with master classes, they met the legendary musical names that graced Snape Maltings and the Britten-Pears home, known as the Red House.

“The master classes in Aldeburgh were so wonderful because they aimed for the oldest living authority in any particular genre,” says Ralls. Ubukata mentions Hans Hotter, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Galina Vishnevskaya. “It was amazing to have these people talking about working with Richard Strauss or Francis Poulenc over dinner.”

Added to their own talents, interests and natural curiosity, these interactions gave Ralls and Ubukata the depth to shape their own work in song and opera in Toronto. They tried out their first Aldeburgh Connection programme in 1982 for a handful of people. According to the duo, it took about five years before they could count on more than 100 people in the audience.

“The first few years were a bit loosey-goosey,” recalls Ubukata, who had tried presenting words-and-music programmes at Hart House in his pre-Aldeburgh days. “We just learned a lot as we went along.”

Along the way, the pair also introduced Toronto to many of its finest young singing talents, many of whom returned for last season’s scintillating 30th anniversary gala concert at Koerner Hall.

Just about every composer who ever wrote an art song has been presented by the Aldeburgh Connection since 1982, including many new commissions from Torontonians such as Derek Holman, John Beckwith and John Greer.

There was always a little bit of Britten lurking somewhere.

I ask about specific challenges facing the Britten interpreter.

Ralls mentions how Mozart and Schubert were two of Britten’s favourite composers, and, as with their music, “You can’t fake it with [Britten’s] music as perhaps you can in a Schumann song or a Mahler song where there’s more under the fingers somehow.”

“Britten’s style has that wonderful transparency to it,” he adds.

Nealy everything Britten wrote was recorded by the composer or under his supervision, so there are clear references laid down for posterity. Ubukata mentions that the scores are clearly noted — but Ralls corrects him.

“It’s almost as if he deliberately left something out,” says Ralls carefully. “He’ll write l’istesso tempo [same tempo as before] in one spot, but it isn’t. If you listen to his performance, it’s actually noticeably quicker or slower at that point. There are aspects that one has to know instinctively or by hearing his performance. If you just go by markings in the score, you can often miss some quite crucial aspect.

“Also, the more one knows his music, you can apply or recognize an affect that he is aiming for from a similar passage in a different piece, and that will help you with his interpretation, as well.”

Ralls contrasts Britten and Stravinsky. He cites the Russian composer’s own instructions that his music must simply be played. The Englishman’s needs to be interpreted. “Britten’s music doesn’t play itself.”

“In works written with words, that is a whole other consideration,” adds Ubukata, who believes that understanding the culture and the people and the sensibility behind each work is so important. “Hearing Peter [Pears] declaiming the first Canticle was part of one’s coaching session, as it were.”

This direct and special connection — the Aldeburgh Connection — makes the three Britten Festival of Song concerts special events augmented by the excellent singers and ensembles joining Ralls and Ubukata on stage.

Unlike the previous three decades of Aldeburgh programming, these concerts are likely to be a bit more personal in some of the words we’ll hear from the stage.

“We might find our voices at long last,” chuckles Ubukata.

“Well, we’ll see,” says Ralls with old-fashioned English reserve.