BBC vandals are determined to wreck classical music – one man has a plan to save it

Kathryn Rudge will sing the title role in Gustav Holst's Sāvitri, performed at this year's Aldeburgh Festival
Kathryn Rudge will sing the title role in Gustav Holst's Sāvitri, performed at this year's Aldeburgh Festival - Antonio Olmos

Next month’s Aldeburgh Festival, which starts on the Suffolk coast on June 7 and runs for more than a fortnight, will be the last edition presided over by Roger Wright, who is retiring after 10 years. Wright, 67, is surely the most accomplished music administrator in Britain. He remains the longest-serving controller in Radio 3’s history. From there, he went to Aldeburgh, leaving his old network at the peak of excellence, before BBC executives with little interest in classical music and even less knowledge of it began butchering it, despite fierce resistance from Wright’s successors. 

While running the Proms, Wright considerably broadened the scope of the programme, and not by holding “concerts” in car parks or showcasing the music of various meretricious pop groups, as his successor – the excellent David Pickard, now also departing his post – has been pressurised to do by the boneheads upstairs. Instead, Wright served what one might think was one of the purposes of a national music festival sponsored by the nation’s state broadcaster: programming more superb British music, much of it rarely heard.

For a little too long before Wright’s arrival there, Aldeburgh catered to the wrong sort of elite: audiences whose tastes were so narrow that large acreages of the classical canon – the acreages not regarded sympathetically by the festival’s founder, Benjamin Britten, and his partner Peter Pears – were simply not considered for inclusion in the festival. Famously, Britten was deeply jealous of his British rivals, which meant for years that his works (excellent though many of them are) remained almost the sole representative of his generation in our national music. Wright has made absolutely sure to enrich the reputation of the festival not just by including works by composers for which the founder had a haughty disdain, but by including a wide range of contemporary composers, too.

This year marks the 75th festival – it began in 1948 but was derailed by the pandemic – and one of its focuses is the music of Judith Weir, Master of the King’s Music, who last week celebrated her 70th birthday. On June 16, the pianist Steven Osborne has a recital in which he will perform three of her pieces, as well as the last two Schubert sonatas. Then the next day, the justly reprieved BBC Singers and the Castalian String Quartet will perform her oratorio blue hills beyond blue hills, settings of words by the Scottish poet Alan Spence and the Japanese poets Issa and Basho.

There is another taste of the East in a concert on June 13 comprising only British works. The 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Holst is being widely commemorated around the country, and Aldeburgh is presenting two of his works that reflect his own fascination with the Orient. The first is his Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, based on a Sanskrit text; the second is a rare and much awaited performance of his short opera Sāvitri, based on the same text. Kathryn Rudge will sing the title role, with Anthony Gregory and Ross Ramgobin the other soloists. The Pagrav Dance Company also feature in the production, as do the Britten Sinfonia Voices, and the Sinfonia itself, conducted by Olivia Clarke.

'A centre of artistic excellence': A performance at the Aldeburgh Festival
'A centre of artistic excellence': A performance at the Aldeburgh Festival - Matt Jolly

The concert also includes Nicholas Daniel performing a work of which he is unquestionably the finest living interpreter, the Oboe Concerto in A Minor by Vaughan Williams – a composer who encountered the founder’s deep, and preposterous, disapproval. Appropriately, there will be another rare performance in the concert, of Imogen Holst’s Suite: she worked with Britten at Aldeburgh for decades, and this is a much merited recognition of her standing.

As he did with Radio 3 and the Proms, Wright leaves Aldeburgh in even better shape than he found it. Under his leadership, Snape Maltings and Britten’s Aldeburgh base, the Red House, were united into Britten Pears Arts and have become a centre of artistic excellence. It has just launched a £13.4 million capital programme, which will fund a range of things, from upgrading the Maltings concert hall and site to improving the locality’s flood defences. It remains a model for other such institutions across the country.