Showing posts with label Roxanna Panufnik. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Roxanna Panufnik. Show all posts

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Silver Birch: sneak preview

Here's Garsington's introduction to Silver Birch, with director Karen Gillingham, conductor Douglas Boyd and choreographer Natasha Khamjani...

Five days until opening night!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"Siegfried Sassoon was my great-uncle"

Baritone Bradley Travis in rehearsal as Siegfried Sassoon

What are the chances of this? You turn up to an adult community chorus workshop to do a session on the work of a particular poet, and someone steps forward and explains he is that poet's great-nephew. That's what happened at the Silver Birch devising workshops, and the said great-nephew of Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Bucknill, is in the chorus for the run at Garsington next week. I took the opportunity to ask him about his links with Sassoon and what it's like to be in the opera.

(Photos are all from a rehearsal the other day.)

JD: Please could you explain in what way you’re related to Siegfried Sassoon? What awareness of his poetry and his significance did you have when growing up? And what does he mean to you today?

SB: My grandfather, Richard Gatty had a sister called Hester. She married Siegfried Sassoon in 1933, 15 years after the end of WW1. Unfortunately I never met Siegfried as he died in 1967, just before my second birthday. So I have no memories of him but can recall a family photograph of him in my grandparents house in North Yorkshire. Before she died, my grandmother, who had known Siegfried from the 1930s onwards, assisted the author Max Egremont with his Sassoon biography. My mother and aunt (who are both coming to Silver Birch) knew Siegfried in his later life and remember him vividly.


Bradley Travis (Siegfried) and Sam Furness (Jack)
When I was growing up I had surprisingly little awareness of his poetry. I just knew that he was one of the war poets, and that I was related to him. We never studied his works at school. It only really dawned on me how famous he was when my sister Gemma contacted me in some excitement to say that she had seen one of his poems on the Underground. When I was next in London I saw the poem 'Everyone Sang' and it deeply moved me. Today, for me, he still provides a link with the past and an insight into the meaning, and effects, of war.


JD: How long have you been singing in the Garsington Adult Community Chorus? What attracted you to join it and what do you enjoy about it?  

SB: My wife Amanda is the Accommodation Co-Ordinator for Garsington and when she heard that Garsington were going to put on a Community Opera in 2013 she encouraged me to take part in it, as she thought they may need an extra tenor. Fortunately they did. The whole experience was amazing - hard work with many long rehearsals and often taking you well out of your comfort zone! The feeling of achievement, with relief and adrenaline after the performances of Road Rage is something I will never forget - and the main reason I had no hesitation in auditioning for Silver Birch.


Sam Furness as Jack, with "Chloe" and "Leo"

JD: What does it mean to you to be in Silver Birch? 

SB: Just very pleased to be involved again. I can't speak highly enough of the people involved at all levels in bringing the production together.



JD: What are its chief challenges and rewards for you as a member of the chorus? 

SB: For me, the chief challenges are getting the music right technically (it's not easy) and then being able to deliver it on the stage along with everyone else. The reward is the feeling of satisfaction when it all goes as it's supposed to!


Composer Roxanna Panufnik talks to the company

JD: Our hero, Jack, takes inspiration from Sassoon in terms of his daring, his disillusionment and in the end his decision that he must help those whose suffering he shares. Do you think the opera and the production is capturing - if tangentially, perhaps - anything of the spirit and/or journey that Sassoon underwent? 

SB: Yes I would say it does - in a very moving way.

JD: We chose several poems by Sassoon for inclusion. What do you think of those choices and do you like the way they have been used?  

SB: The poems seem to fit seamlessly into the opera. 'Everyone Sang' was the first Sassoon poem to deeply affect me, so I am delighted it has been given a special place at the end of the opera.

JD: Are you looking forward to opening night?? 

SB: Yes!

SILVER BIRCH IS AT GARSINGTON OPERA, 28-30 JULY. RETURNS ONLY!

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Silver Birch: 2 weeks to go

SILVER BIRCH IS SOLD OUT! The first night is two weeks from today, up at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, near High Wycombe. Keep trying for returns...

Here, then, is how it all happened.


The cast of Silver Birch take a leap into the unknown...

HOW WE MADE SILVER BIRCH


Roxanna Panufnik and I first met in 1994 or 1995, thanks to our mutual friend Tasmin Little, who introduced us one day at the Purcell Room. We had an unusual thing in common: in our twenties we were each dealing with the death of a parent. My mother died in February 1994 and Rox's father, the great composer Andrzej Panufnik, had been gone since October 1991. At that age most of your friends have not been through that experience, and it can be a lonely matter: some people stand by you, others run for their lives. The bond, therefore, was special from the start.

We've written several pieces together in the last few years. I adapted the words of the Padre Pio Prayer for a choral piece that the Genesis Foundation commissioned from Rox, and later created a sort of narrative poem for a commission from Chanticleer in San Francisco. This piece is called Let Me In and is a story derived from the Gnostic Somethingorothers in which the young boy Jesus restores a dead baby to life. I wrote part of the poem in iambic pentameter and focused on the images of mourning traditions in the ancient Jewish community in which the tale was set. Next came the Dance of Life: Tallinn Mass, for which Rox devoted months of care, effort and sensitivity to getting to grips with the Estonian language and setting it like a native - only to find that they wanted to do the recording in English. My job was to take the existing music, words and rough translation and make a singable English adaptation. (In two weeks.)

But the peach project would, of course, be an opera. First we latched onto a famous novel we both loved, made an outline...and found someone else had already nabbed the stage rights. Then we picked another classic book that would make a still more amazing opera, one that would attract punters from all over place. Could we get a commission? "Oh darlings, we love it, but our commissioning schedule is full up with [delete as appropriate] Famous Bloke, More Famous Bloke and Humongously Famous Bloke..." Worse still: "Yes! We adore it! We're going to commission it. ...We are going to commission it... We are definitely going to commission it... well, we'd love to commission it, maybe in three years if.....er...." [the rest is silence].

One day the phone rings and there's Rox. "You're not going to believe this," she says, "but Garsington just called."

Siegfried Sassoon.
Photo: Pictorial Press/Alamy Stock Photo/Poetry Foundation 
This wasn't to be any usual opera, though. Nor was it precisely a community opera. It had to be more than that: it had to be for everyone, with everyone - from a professional cast of rising opera stars to a group of primary school children, and for an audience of both seasoned opera-goers and complete newbies, aged 8 to 108. It needed to have a connection to World War I - but with 2017 a more practical choice of year than 2016, we wondered if perhaps everyone would be fed up to the back teeth with World War I pieces by then. That shifted the focus to the present day, yet the Siegfried Sassoon connection needed to be there, as Sassoon spent a lot of time at the original Garsington in Oxfordshire.

I came up with a story, but our doughty director Karen Gillingham came round and spent a gentle hour explaining to me, over tea and a purring kitten, why it wasn't going to work in the proverbial month of Sundays. So I threw it out and went back to the writing board. There was only one way to approach this new and demanding project: with a completely open mind. To go with the flow of collaborative energy. To see where it took us.

First it took us into schools to work on the Siegfried Sassoon poems and ideas about war, separation and challenge with teenagers and primary school children. Karen is an expert at getting huge groups of rowdy youngsters working together, listening to her and carrying out instructions. I watched it all, with writer-antennae at the ready. We wanted to find out what mattered most to them. What would they want in an opera? What would they miss if they went away to war? What might induce them to join up?

It was clear, very quickly, that they didn't want loads of soppy love duets. They wanted action. I also asked my nephew Luca, who was about 9, what he'd want to see in an opera about World War I, and he said, "Dog-fights in the air", which of course is easier said than done - but he is coming to the show on the Sunday and I hope he won't be disappointed with the battle scene, brought to life not least by the team of Foley artists - sound-effects - from Pinewood Studios.

The professional cast in rehearsal: Sarah Redgwick sings Mrs Morrell, Jack's former teacher

Most of all, though, all these young people said that their families were everything to them. What we needed was a family-based story. And one little boy in the primary school team said he would miss the silver birch tree outside his family's home, because his parents had planted it as a sapling and watched it grow up. The antennae began to buzz.

We spent an evening with the adult community chorus, again with our chosen poems. At this point a gentleman from Henley-on-Thames quietly explained that he is Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew and offered to introduce me to his mother and aunt, who remembered Uncle Siegfried extremely well.  I spent a fascinating morning with them, listening to reminiscences of Sassoon himself: how he spoke, how he dressed, how he drove, why he was withdrawn and remote by the time they knew him, and how he had found spiritual peace at last in his conversion to Catholicism. We read some of his poems together - there, he had said, one would find the best of him. And we discussed why he went back into World War I - having survived crazy exploits at first that saw him nicknamed 'Mad Jack', then speaking out in the Declaration Against War about how the campaign was being conducted. He was confined to a mental asylum in Scotland for his pains. Yet then he returned to the war, because his men were suffering and dying and he felt the need to go back and help them through it. He belonged with those whose suffering he shared.

The adult community chorus in rehearsal. (Photo: Luke Delahunty)
But that wasn't enough. We have a present-day story. We need present-day soldiers. We found some.

I found one at Barnes station. We were waiting for a train late one night and he was on the platform. Weaving around, appearing semi-deranged. Wearing dark glasses, in the dark. He'd been in Iraq, and come back. His chief aid in readjusting, if you can call it that, was clearly alcohol. No help from anyone, he said. He took off his glasses. His eyes were red with blood, and I can still see now their wild, disconnected gaze. Sand, he said. You can't get all the sand out of your eyes. But he was proud, he said, of what he'd done to serve his country. He'd do it all again.

When we went on holiday in January 2015, a former armed forces guy was in the next hotel room. He was retired, but he'd been in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, driving army vans. He told me his story: a broken and bereaved family, a hopeless town where he was expected simply to spend his life working in the carpet factory, the longing for something more, to get away and see the world and do something bigger and better. The armed forces offered him both a salary and that opportunity. He saw plenty of terrifying things in Northern Ireland. What would be his advice to young people considering joining up, I asked. "Remember, there's no turning back," he said. "It's not a video game - you can't just press a reset button. There's no reset button on your life."

Then I met Jay Wheeler.

Jay is married to a friend of Karen's. He lives in Birmingham and now runs a military fitness company. But in 2003 he was a lance corporal during the invasion of Iraq. We got in touch and explained what we were doing. I went up to Birmingham to visit him and across one extraordinary afternoon he told me his story from start to present. Much of it has fed into Jack's story in Silver Birch. Again, there was the difficult family situation, the young people's dreams of escape and adventure, the need to prove yourself, to push yourself, to aim higher than life seemed to want you to.  His brother had joined up too. Neither of them expected to see action, but it was the luck of the draw: their division was the one whose turn it was to be primed and ready to go if occasion demanded. And occasion did.

There was much in Jay's story that we couldn't possibly include in a family-oriented piece: unfolding in front of my ears was an X-rated, Oscar-winning movie, structure and all. What he had been through, what he had endured, what he had had to do, the decisions he had had to make, the violence and horror of the taking of Basra, the aftermath that so many soldiers endured of PTSD, all of this is unimaginable to most of us. Many elements of his history have gone into Silver Birch: the motivating needs to prove himself to his father, to look after his younger brother ("Got to look after my brother. Always look after my brother," says Jack. That's Jay) and then the all-but-impossible matter of returning and adjusting to civilian life: all this came from our talk. Moreover, Jay, receiving the post intended for his brother, who was in another camp, used to run across the desert by night to deliver it quietly. That became a scene in the opera too.

Rehearsing the homecoming

Jay has been to hell - and come back. He has turned his life around. He has a successful business and a young family. He told me that everything he is today has been made possible by the experiences he had in the army. He's proved his own strength, not only to his father but to himself. Many are not as strong as he is mentally. Many of them fall apart after the horrors they've been in, become addicted to drink or drugs, end up on the streets or in jail. Despite everything, Jay has turned all the grit, all the determination, into a force for good. I have no greater respect for anybody I have ever met than I have for him. It is with more than merely enormous gratitude that we took him up on his offer of using his own army number for Jack in the drill scene.

Our two Chloes. Jack's little sister is the voice of hope,
and gets to sing duets with Sam Furness
I don't believe that people are built for war. Human minds and bodies are not designed to withstand attacking, destruction, chemicals, psychological breaking, fear at every moment. And we cannot solve our problems with weapons. To have been through all this physical and mental shattering and come through to the other side is something almost miraculous. Jack and his brother Davey return to their family needing to make sense of what has happened to them. It is only love that can save them in the end, not war. It's their connection to their family - especially their indomitable mother Anna and little sister Chloe - that sustains them. And it's their connection to their "brothers" in arms, whom they decide they must learn to help, that stands some chance of keeping them on the rails.

The other day I saw another Jack. I was walking to the Barbican past one of those little City public gardens, on a sunny July afternoon. A tall bloke in camouflage trousers with cropped hair and a can of beer. He was sitting on a bench, staring into space. And I wondered what he had seen, could still see and may be seeing forever.


Monday, June 05, 2017

Silver Birch: We are all connected



"One chance to do something brave..."

It's all happening. On Saturday I went along to High Wycombe to see a rehearsal of Silver Birch for the first time. The Garsington Youth Company and some of the Adult Community Chorus were in extremely fine fettle and working their socks off, together with the Garsington music staff, the repetiteur, our director Karen Gillingham, the designer Rhiannon Newman Brown, the Foley team from Shepperton Studios, our producer Kate Laughton and many more. I came back reeling a bit.

I'm a novice librettist. OK, I've put together other words to be sung or acted, but this is the first time I've been involved in a complete, fully staged, top-notch, bells-and-whistles creation of a whole brand-new opera. And of course if you've been going to operas for more than 40 years and writing about them and reviewing them for half of that, you think you know what it takes. Or...er...maybe you don't.

Here's a little of what it's really taking to make this opera, after it's been written. This is leaving aside the devising process, the research, the writing, the composing - more of that another time.

Suzy and Patrick working with the youth company
The singers have to learn their roles. That may sound obvious, but it includes, for Silver Birch, a lot of young people and amateurs, and they have been rehearsing every week since the new year. They've all been auditioned. They had to prepare for those auditions and some who prepared for the auditions would have been rejected and would have been disappointed, and people had to audition them and make those decisions and tell them who was in and who wasn't.

The soloists - whom I haven't yet seen in action - have to get to grips with brand-new roles while also being busy with whatever else they're singing at the moment - for instance, our leading lady, Victoria Simmonds, is currently singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at Opera Holland Park. Our conductor, Garsington's music director Dougie Boyd, has his hands full conducting The Marriage of Figaro. And don't get me started on what language orchestral musicians use while practising, at home, a new work they've never seen or heard before.

The director, Karen, has to map out the drama and then rehearse it all. The choreographer, Natasha, is in charge of a small group of brilliant youngsters who suddenly launch into breakdancing in the middle of the drill scene. Rhiannon has to find a way to make the silver birch tree grow, among much else. During the course of the rehearsal, the adult community chorus members are summoned one by one for costume fittings - someone has to make those costumes.

The adult community chorus members are devoting lashings of time and effort to taking part. One of them happens to be Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew (he was a great help to me in the background research for the opera) and for much of the time he is standing pretty much next to where Bradley Travis will be portraying Sassoon, or at least his ghostly presence.

The music staff are working flat out. Suzy Zumpe leads the music side of the rehearsal, teaching the youth company how to memorise the tricky details of Roxanna's score. "Nothing can grow in this soil" is a line that returns several times, the last note held a different number of beats on each occasion - she finds a trick to help them remember how many and when. And she sings all the female soloist roles herself when they need filling in, with her sidekick Patrick singing all the male ones and the repetiteur, James, bowling along through the piano score.

The stage manager and assistant stage managers are zipping around moving the post that represents the silver birch, adjusting markings, constructing and deconstructing things, and someone has already erected the substantial skeleton two-level set in this school hall. Cups of tea materialise, kindly brewed by one of the assistants. Someone has brought food for the staff's lunch, plus sustaining snacks. One person remarks that during the course of this week they've eaten their body weight in dried fruit.

Everyone has to get there and back. Rhiannon has been stuck on the M25 for hours. The team of three Foley artists (aka our sound-effects gurus) have come up from Shepperton, been to Wormsley to have a look around the theatre and now have come to High Wycombe to see how they will be integrated into the battle scene. And at this point Patrick absolutely excels himself as stand-in sound effects, doing fighter jets, machine guns, mortars and more with vocals alone.

The full score is spread out on a table, a giant publication that has had to be created, proof-read and printed. So has the piano score - the chorus members clutch copies printed with the magic name PANUFNIK in big letters on the front. Someone at Edition Peters had to organise all of that. Every rest, every semiquaver, every word has to be in the right place.

Natasha, who runs a small dance company that specialises in traditional folk dance as well as youth work, can see everyone is knackered and leads a cool-down session at the end of the afternoon. Now the kids' parents are presumably going to have to come and pick them up - indeed, a couple of proud mums have been watching the proceedings for a while. Meanwhile Kate has to organise absolutely every practical detail of absolutely everything, yet seems utterly unflappable and even finds time to drop me back to High Wycombe station.

Final scene. That post in the middle is the silver birch, growing tall and strong.

I do have to take notice and learn some lessons. It's too late to change anything in my text, but I've now twigged that it's really, seriously not a good idea for singers to have a word ending in "t" directly followed by one beginning with "d" and that a few unintended consequences can include the command: "Let's go from 'Driblet'". The kids are unfazed by this, but I quietly sink through the floor.

Over at Garsington, it will be all go, too. People have to work the booking mechanisms, send out the tickets, tell people about the trains, set out the picnic tents, stock the bar, direct the parking. The audience has to find its way to Wormsley. Will they come out at the end singing the Silver Birch Song? I think so - I can't get it out of my head.

We are all connected. All these people, hundreds and hundreds of them, are connected by the one purpose of making this new opera reality. Everyone is connected. Everyone could potentially have their life changed in some way by this thing. To say "we're all in it together" is not enough. This is not a "community opera": it's a community. To stage any opera would mean creating a community, even if the opera has existed for 400 years. This one happens to be new. And it happens to be ours.

I'm not sure I'll ever be quite the same again.

Silver Birch by Roxanna Panufnik is on at Garsington Opera on 28, 29 and 30 July. Get your tickets here.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

So what is a "People's Opera" anyway?

Sam Furness (tenor), who sings our hero, Jack
Exciting times here as summer approaches and the Garsington Opera team gears up for the world premiere on 28 July of Silver Birch, the new opera by Roxanna Panufnik with a libretto by me plus some Siegfried Sassoon poetry.

 There's a supposition doing the rounds, though, that Silver Birch is a "community opera", but in fact we've called it something else: a "people's opera". And for a good reason.

A "community opera" is generally about the experience of those taking part in it, who in many cases are not auditioned. This "people's opera" is about the audience too: whether or not they are seasoned opera-goers or first-timers at a performance, the show should be equally enjoyable for all.

We do have a wonderfully large community involvement, but everyone has been auditioned and there is a strong professional core.

The Learning and Participation department has led the project, with Karen Gillingham, head of the department, as director; 180 people are taking part in the performance, including children from local primary schools, members of the armed forces, the Garsington adult community choir - and also a truly fabulous solo cast of some of the best young singers in the country.

Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano) is our strong-hearted Anna
It will be performed on Garsington's main stage, with the company's music director, Douglas Boyd, conducting it himself.

So it is, really, for everyone and about everyone. It's all about all of us working together. That's one reason we love it so much, and we hope you will too!








Jack 
Sam Furness
Anna
Victoria Simmonds
Simon
Darren Jeffery
Siegfried Sassoon
Bradley Travis
Mrs Morrell
Sarah Redgwick
Davey
James Way
Conductor
Douglas Boyd
Director
Karen Gillingham
Designer
Rhiannon Newman Brown
Composer
Roxanna Panufnik
Librettist
Jessica Duchen
Movement Director
Natasha Khamjani

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Latest on 'Silver Birch'

The Silver Birch youth company in rehearsal

The Oxford Times has run a preview of our Garsington opera, Silver Birch (music by Roxanna Panufnik, libretto by me). Read it here.

THE horrors of the First World War will meet the tragedy of modern day conflicts in an opera starring more than 180 people from across the community.
Silver Birch, a people's opera, is Garsington Opera's new commission for the 2017 season and is a story of courage and aspiration.
Building on the Great War poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and the testimony of a British soldier who served in the Iraq War it will star local people aged from eight to 80.

Here's what I've said about the process so far..

It is not only the fulfilment of a dream; this creative process, deeply collaborative at every level, has been entirely new to me , and it's one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to encounter. The theme is the impact of war on soldiers and their families, tying together Siegfried Sassoon's World War I poetry and the experiences of those serving in modern warfare. It is designed to appeal to opera regulars and first-time attenders alike. It is fast-paced and action-packed; emotions run high and Roxanna Panufnik has written some incredibly beautiful music, as well as letting her hair down a bit in the battle scene!"
Jessica Duchen, Librettist

Saturday, March 25, 2017

SILVER BIRCH: Come to Garsington and see our opera!


Booking is now open for SILVER BIRCH, the new 'People's Opera' by composer Roxanna Panufnik, with a libretto by muggins. It's not only the fulfilment of a dream; this creative process, deeply collaborative at every level, has been entirely new to me, and it's one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to encounter.

Performances are on 28, 29 and 30 July at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, near High Wycombe. You can book online here. 

The theme is the impact of war on soldiers and their families, tying together Siegfried Sassoon's World War I poetry and the experiences of those serving in modern warfare. It's designed to appeal to opera regulars and newbies alike and of all ages. It's fast paced and action packed, emotions run high and Rox has written some incredibly beautiful music, as well as letting her hair down a bit in the battle scene...
Inspired by the timeless themes of war and relationships affected by it, the opera draws upon Siegfried Sassoon's poems and the testimony of a British soldier, who served recently in Iraq, to illustrate the human tragedies of conflicts past and present. Jack joins the army to silence his father's taunts for his love of poetry. Joined by his brother Davey, their devastating experiences turn the whole family's world upside down. Supported by the power of their mother's love as she tries to hold the family together they, like Sassoon himself, seek to help those whose suffering they share. 
Jack 
Sam Furness
Anna
Victoria Simmonds
Simon
Darren Jeffery
Siegfried Sassoon
Bradley Travis
Mrs Morrell
Sarah Redgwick
Davey
James Way
Conductor
Douglas Boyd
Director
Karen Gillingham
Designer
Rhiannon Newman Brown
Composer
Roxanna Panufnik
Librettist
Jessica Duchen
Movement Director
Natasha Khamjani

We have:

A cast to die for (see above)
Some wonderful child soloists
Garsington's adult community chorus, which happens to include Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew
A large choir of local children
Youth dance
Foley artists from Shepperton film studios
Digital animation by VJ Mischa Giancovich
Members of the Armed Forces

Book soon because there are only 3 performances and space is limited!

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Roxanna's Spring




1 March is one of my favourite days of the year, because its arrival means that January and February are gone and won't be back for a bit. Seasonal music is always a big JDCMB favourite, so here is a piece for the incipient spring.


This was the world premiere in 2010 of one piece in the cycle of Roxanna Panufnik's Four World Seasons: it's called 'Spring in Japan' and it is played here by Tasmin Little, for whom it was written, and the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by David Curtis and led by David Le Page.

There's now a CD of the complete work - with 'Autumn in Albania', 'Tibetan Winter' and 'Indian Summer' - get it here.


Saturday, February 04, 2017

We need some boys who can sing and dance, please

Alert from Garsington Opera, which is recruiting for Silver Birch, the new "people's opera" by Roxanna Panufnik for which I've written the libretto. We need some boys aged 14-22 whose voices have broken and who can sing or dance. Auditions on 9 March. Performances in July.


We also need:
• some young instrumental players to participate in the orchestra alongside the pros;
• ten members of the armed forces to join the adult chorus;
• four very good child singers to play and understudy the crucial roles of Chloe (aged 9) and Leo (aged 11)

Please see Garsington's info for further details and contact Julian if you'd like to audition. And if you want to see the result, put 28, 29, 30 July in your diaries.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Choristers aren't only for Christmas

The composer Roxanna Panufnik isn't only writing an opera at the moment (our Silver Birch for next year's Garsington). She's also raising money for Friends of Cathedral Music, which aims  to support the making of music in cathedrals and sustain it for future generations. Reduced funding means that an increasing number of cathedral choirs are under threat and with them the wonderful musical experiences and educational opportunities for their young choristers. Rox has helped to launch the Diamond Fund for Choristers. They're doing a sponsored cycle to get the fundraising underway. Not just another Beethoven cycle, either: they're riding from Windsor to Westminster.

Choristers off duty! Photo: Steve Bainbridge
Here's a message from Roxanna:
Every Christmas we take for granted the sublime angelic voices that radiate from radio and TV - and are part of the very fabric of British culture. But many cathedrals choirs are at risk because of reduced funding and not enough boys and girls are aware of the amazing experience, opportunities and education being a chorister can bring. The Diamond Fund for Choristers has been launched by Friends of Cathedral Music as a supersonic drive to keep our choristers flourishing - please support us in our epic cycle, from St George's Chapel Windsor to Westminster Abbey as part of this journey! 
Love from the WACky RacerS(cycling team of Westminster Abbey Choir School) xxx

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Let's make an opera - for Garsington!

My opera-writing partner, Roxanna Panufnik. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
It's all official now, so I can tell you at last: Garsington Opera has commissioned a new opera from Roxanna Panufnik and I am writing the libretto. It's called Silver Birch. It's a "People's Opera". It is to be performed on Garsington's main stage as part of the 2017 festival and will be directed by Karen Gillingham and conducted by Douglas Boyd, Garsington's music director.

What's a "people's opera", you may ask? It's an opera for absolutely everyone, whether on the stage or in the audience. The cast is led by 5 principal professional opera singers. Then there are two child soloists, an adult chorus of local people, Garsington Youth Opera, a youth dance company, and a primary school-age chorus, an orchestra of 17 professionals and 20 young instrumentalists too. There'll be around 150 participants! And the story is designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, from 8 to 108.

We held devising workshops, led by the incredibly dynamic Karen, in which schoolchildren and members of the local population joined us to explore the theme of war and its impact on families, as well as the significance to them of World War 1. Both the character and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon will play an important role within the piece, connecting the ongoing World War 1 commemorations with modern-day warfare. 

The story is original, multifaceted and informed by some very personal research we've undertaken, involving interviews with members of Sassoon's family plus advisers from today's military and ex-military personnel, our principal consultant having served on the frontline in Iraq. 

It's been a whole new way of working for me and I've loved every moment of it. I hope you'll love the results too. As they say, watch this space.

More here...

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

EXCLUSIVE JDCMB SPECIAL OFFER: Wimbledon tickets!

The Wimbledon International Music Festival, which runs 14 to 29 November, is kindly offering readers of JDCMB tickets at a special reduced price for two events in this year's fabulous programme. This, happily, is my local international music festival and it is quite something to be able to hear a collection of world-class artists just a short bus ride away. 

I've also been fortunate that the festival (in 2012) staged my play A Walk through the End of Time starring Dame Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman, then commissioned another play from me - Sins of the Fathers, which was a slightly off-the-wall take on Wagner, Liszt and Cosima. Last year Viv McLean and I gave a matinee of the Alicia's Gift concert. 

This year it's over to you for these two very special treats. JDCMB readers can get £10 off the two top prices for each of these events - so £28 tickets for £18, and £23 tickets for £13.



Roxanna Panufnik
Saturday 21 November 
Henry Goodman narrates a 150th Anniversary Celebration of 'Alice in Wonderland', written by Louis de Bernieres. Matthew Trusler (violin) and Ashley Wass (piano) perform 12 short pieces by 12 celebrated composers  representing the 12 chapters of the book. The composers are Sally Beamish, Roxanna Panufnik, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Stuart MacRae, Poul Ruders, Howard Blake, Carl Davis, Stephen Hough, Richard Dubugnon, Ilya Gringolts, Colin Matthews, Gwilym Simcock, Augusta Read Thomas.
Book via this link using the promotional code Jess10, which you enter at the 'basket' stage.







Mikhail Rudy
Thursday 26 November
Mikhail Rudy (piano) presents a recital incorporating two of his now-legendary multi-media projects: Petrushka, which was a commission from this festival a couple of years ago, and his latest one - here coming to the UK for the first time - The Sound of Colours, featuring animations of the Chagall paintings in the auditorium of the Paris Opéra Garnier. 
Mikhail Rudy was close to Marc Chagall in his last years. He gave his first concert in the West with Mstislav Rostropovich and Isaac Stern in the Beethoven Triple Concerto for Chagall’s 90th birthday, and subsequently met him on numerous occasions. Now, in collaboration with the Chagall family, who allowed him to use many unpublished sketches for the ceiling of the Opera Garnier, Rudy has created a new project on the music from Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Debussy and Ravel.
Book via this link using the promotional code Jess10, which you enter at the 'basket' stage.






Monday, December 01, 2014

Muse for the day

An extremely moving day yesterday at the Andrzej Panufnik centenary event at Kings Place. Billed as "A family celebration", it centred on performances of music by both Panufnik père and fille - these days, indeed, we hear much more of Roxanna's music than we do of her father's. This occasion, with two chamber music concerts, a film followed by a discussion and finally a Warsaw Cabaret, is the latest - and London's last, as far as I'm aware - contribution to the centenary. (Unfortunately I was only able to attend part of the event due to Elgar talk preparations for tonight, but am happy to declare myself blown away by the playing of the Brodsky Quartet and moved to tears by the film and the words of Camilla Panufnik, Andrzej's widow.)

Two very different personalities emerge, hearing Andrzej and Roxanna's works side by side, yet there are qualities in common: both love to use crunchy harmonies in which major and minor meet and greet, and there's a delicacy, a finesse, to the sound - the musical equivalent, if you like, of a shiny surface, gloss rather than matt. Roxanna's music, though, sounds free-spirited; she always leaves room for humour, or lament, or an exploration of far-off lands. Andrzej's does not.

His works are impeccable: never a note too many or too few, the architecture perfectly circumscribed, the rigour vigilant and the core strong. Yet Panufnik senior is much of his era in that his own life and music, through coincidence of time and place of birth, was circumscribed first by soviet politics and subsequently by what does emerge as an atmosphere of cultural fascism in the west. Perhaps I'm imagining it, or projecting, but his sense of vigilance over each phrase makes one feel that, when finally free from the control of others, he exerted supreme control over his own self. The structures are perfect, the substance within them almost fiercely austere.

He underwent a dramatic escape from Poland in 1954, climbing out of a toilet window to give his minders the slip while on a concert tour to Switzerland, fleeing to the airport and boarding a plane to London. In the film My Father, the Iron Curtain and Me, Jem Panufnik, Andrzej's son, retraces his father's steps and ponders on their different lives and musics (Jem makes club music and art). Imagine reaching a point when you can no longer function in your home country because everything you say is twisted to support a regime you loathe, in which music true to your own spirit is forbidden because everything must support the state, and having lost your entire family to wartime tragedy - and then losing a baby daughter as well. Driven to the point where if you don't leave, you will assuredly crack. And arriving in the longed-for west, only to find that your music is not performed because it is the wrong kind of music - it is not serialist, therefore not approved. And some luminaries you had met when they visited your old country refuse to acknowledge you because they wish to be friendly to those regimes, but not to those who abandon them (apparently Stalin termed these champagne communists of the west "useful idiots").

Panufnik was far from alone among composers in suffering this history of the double-whammy: political exile from one country followed by cultural exile within another.

It's not easy to keep alive the work of a composer after his death, but perhaps the centenary events this year will mark a return to the concert hall for Panufnik's streamlined, distinctive and unfailingly imaginative works. Poland has been doing much to rehabilitate his works and reputation; a performance by the LSO in the beautiful new concert hall of Katowice apparently brought the house down. Now we need his adopted home to do likewise. Hearing his works again has certainly been a highlight of my year. One hopes they are now here to stay.

Read and listen to more about Andrzej here: http://panufnik.com
Read and listen to more about Roxanna here: http://www.roxannapanufnik.com

Meanwhile: I'm off to the Elgar Society tonight to talk about how another composer's spirit has touched my own life so many ways.

Monday, September 01, 2014

September: some gigs and a song

Hello, it's September. How did that happen?!

Here are a few things I'm doing this month: do come along if you're in the vicinity of any of them!

14 September, 3.30pm:
HAMPSTEAD AND HIGHGATE LITERARY FESTIVAL: JOHN OGDON. I interview Ogdon's biographer Charles Beauclerk about the life and work of the troubled musical genius. LJCC, Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green, London NW11.

21 September, 4pm:
ALICIA'S GIFT, the Concert of the Novel. Viv McLean (piano), me (narrator). Chopin Society, London, Westminster Cathedral Hall.

24 September, 6.15pm
PANUFNIK CENTENARY Pre-Concert Talk at the CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I interview Sir Andrzej Panufnik's daughter, composer Roxanna Panufnik, about the life, legacy and influence of her father and his music. Concert includes A.Panufnik's Piano Concerto (with Peter Donohoe) and Sinfonia Elegiaca. 


September is one of the most beautiful months of the year. Here is its eponymous song by this year's top anniversary man, Richard Strauss, from Four Last Songs. The soprano is Nina Stemme, and it's the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Tony Pappano. 

I am sick as the proverbial parrot about having missed Nina's Salome at the Proms on Saturday night. I was in Salzburg to interview a VIPianist and was travelling back at the time. Apparently it was totally sensational and you can hear it on the iPlayer here: click on Listen Again, even if you haven't listened before.