Despite this being the centenary year of Benjamin Britten’s birth and his dying in the last century, the composer still cuts an impressively modern figure. Although best know for his operas Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw, Britten worked prolifically across every genre. Always keen to maximise the reach of his music, he pioneered collaborations with children and amateurs despite an esoteric musical establishment. Quick to embrace emerging technology he was passionate about the broadcast of music and was the first person to write an opera for television. His personal life was also forward-looking, sharing his life and work with Sir Peter Pears in the days when gay marriage was a distant dream. Although Britten has never really gone out of fashion – his The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra featured heavily in Wes Anderson’s recent film Moonrise Kingdom – the anniversary of his birth is a great opportunity to celebrate his rich and varied output.
University of Sheffield Concert Series are making the most of this opportunity with a year-long festival called A Boy Was Born, named after Britten’s Opus Number 3 which first brought him recognition. The festival programme happens all over the city, runs until December 2013 and brings a host of musicians, actors and speakers to Sheffield including Bafta-winning actress Jenny Agutter currently playing everyone’s favourite nun on Call the Midwife. One of the UK’s leading Tenor’s John Mark Ainsley performs Britten’s work with Sheffield’s own Ensemble 360 and Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield Simon Armitage CBE, will be reading from works by WH Auden alongside Britten’s Cabaret Songs performed by students from the Department of Music. Internationally renowned Cellist and winner of a Classic BRIT Award Natalie Clein will perform Britten’s cello music. Only Fools and Horses favourite actor Roger Lloyd-Pack in a more urbane persona, will read WH Auden’s poetry alongside The Utter: Jazz Collective. Joan Rodgers CBE, one of Britain’s best loved Soprano’s performs Britten’s The Poets Echo.
As well as visitors to Sheffield the festival will also feature many music groups from the city itself with twenty orchestras, choirs and musical organisations from the local community committing to the project. These include; The Sheffield Chorale, Sheffield University Chamber Orchestra, Hallam Sinfonia and Ensemble 360 from Music in the Round. A highlight from the education and outreach strand of the festival will be the creation of a new opera, the world première performance of Emil and the Detectives. The opera is based on the German children’s story by Erich Kastner and will be performed by local school children from the city. This will be fulfill an unrealised ambition of Britten’s as he was fond of the story as a child and had always intended to write a piece inspired by the work. A satisfying tribute to the inspirational quality of his life and work.