Britten’s protegé carries on tradition

Aura Sabadus Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, Eric Crozier and Peter Pears are just some of the great musical figures who were intimately linked with East Anglia. Ahead of tomorrow’s Norwich premiere of Britten’s boyhood works, AURA SABADUS meets an equally prominent composer who carries on the region’s brilliant tradition.

Aura Sabadus

An idle drive through Suffolk's maze of coastal back lanes can be a surprising escapade, to say the least.

Regular visitors, and in particular classical music aficionados, will already be familiar with the international Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten and opera tenor Peter Pears, who now rest side by side in the local churchyard of St Peter's and St Paul's.

But a few miles further up towards Southwold, there is Theberton, a sleepy village with a handful of souls.

It does not take a great knowledge of historical trivia to trace the footsteps of the somewhat morose, but acclaimed Victorian writer Charles Montagu Doughty famous for his Travels through Arabia Deserta. Or indeed, to find in the local church the skeletal remains of a German Zeppelin airship which was shot down with the loss of 16 crew in 1917.

It does take however, a little local knowledge to venture up the shady Church Lane to find a secluded cottage peeping behind a rich collection of palm trees. Its landlord, Elis Pehkonen, is a man with a history.

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Just like Britten, whom he met when he was 18, the musician started composing at the age of 12, eventually winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. Britten, whose boyhood compositions will be revealed in a world-first concert in Norwich this Friday, was an inspiration and a source of great encouragement for the budding artist. “I had my first composition lesson with Britten in 1960 who was very supportive and urged me to continue in the career I had chosen,” he said. “Later, in 1966 I had my first commission, the Incidental Music for Everyman, at Britten's recommendation for the King's Lynn Festival.”

Born in Swaffham in 1942, Pehkonen was a pupil at Hammond's Grammar School, Swaffham, where he was taught art by Harry Carter, the man who created many Norfolk village signs and nephew of Egyptologist Howard Carter, discoverer of Tutankhamun's tomb.

At the Royal College of Music he had consultation lessons with elite composers such as Lennox Berkeley, Alan Ridout, Geoffrey Bush, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Anthony Payne, but he went on to develop his own style of music drawing on his interest in Russian history.

His first work to be broadcast on Radio 3 was the Three Songs to poems by Laurie Lee, whom he met when he moved to Gloucestershire in 1964. But it was not until 1986 that the first version of his major work, the Russian Requiem, was commissioned by the Birmingham Festival Choral Society.

Although directly influenced by the documented events following the Russian Revolution of 1917, its message of redemption from inhumanity through the Passion of Jesus Christ has world-wide significance. Pehkonen highlights selected passages with quotations from the Revelation of St John, Canto 3 in Hell of Dante's Divine Comedy and Boris Pasternak's Zhivago Poems Gethsemane and Winter Night. There are also comments by Lenin from his Collected Works.“I am very interested in Russian history and literature, particularly in books such as the Archipelago Gulag by dissident writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Stalin's Secret War by Nikolai Tolstoy.”

Pehkonen's curiosity about communist Russia is justified. His father, Sulo Pehkonen,was born in Karelia, near the Russian border. During the 1917 Finnish Winter War with the Russian Bolsheviks he was separated from his parents and taken to England by a British soldier. His grandfather was captured by the Soviets and taken to Russia where he spent several years before escaping the country. “Who suffered most because of Lenin and Stalin?” he asks rhetorically. “Not just the Finns and other nation states of Eastern Europe, but the whole of Russia. This cannot be forgotten and is why I composed The Russian Requiem.”

From 1967 to 1979, Elis taught at Cirencester School, where he continued the tradition begun by composer and conductor Peter Maxwell Davies of involving pupils in performing contemporary music. For eight years Elis conducted the Cirencester School Percussion Ensemble in dozens of concerts and broadcasts, which included music by David Bedford, Brian Dennis, Philip Lane and many other notable composers.

Pehkonen and his wife Pamela, now 65, moved to their cottage in Theberton in the mid 80s where he continued to compose choral, orchestral and chamber music which was performed at acclaimed venues in Britain and abroad. “I have just finished two pieces,” he says. “Pin Number for eight double bases will be performed at Wells Town Hall this month. The other, Island Music, will be performed by the Scottish National Orchestra in June. I am also recording several pieces for a CD which includes works by other people. It's due to be released soon.”

Pehkonen often takes refuge in his improvised studio in the garden, surrounded by dozens of palm trees which he has been collecting over the years. “My music is tonal,” he says. “Nothing of the plinky-plonk modern type. My favourite music period is probably late mediaeval 1300 to 1500. But inspiration really is in the process of creating it. At least, that's how things work with me.”

t For more information or to buy Pehkonen's CDs visit www.elispehkonen. com

t The concert of juvenile and mature work by Benjamin Britten takes place at the John Innes Centre in Norwich this Friday, April 4, at 7.15pm. Tickets are £10 and can be bought on the door or through the website www.chamberorchestra