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!


Enjoy JDCMB? Support its year of development here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Barenboim for Prime Minister

Barenboim raises a hand with his Berlin Staatskapelle. (Photo:

Three days into the Proms and it's already clear that the world's leading musicians are more clued in to the folly of the flat-earth idiocy in Brexit Island than our own politicians are. Igor Levit played the Ode to Joy as an encore after his performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3 on opening night. Yesterday Daniel Barenboim followed the questing, Schumannesque lament for a vanishing world that Elgar's Second Symphony evokes with a speech about the dangers of isolationism, identifying the overarching problem that causes religious and political fundamentalism as a failure in education. The usual howls that politics and music don't mix have been curiously quiet - perhaps because Levit didn't say a word, but let Beethoven do all the speaking; and perhaps because Barenboim is, quite simply, right. [Update, 3.30pm: they've now stopped being quiet, but it was only a matter of time... and Barenboim is still right.]

(You can also read the transcribed text of his speech at Jon Jacobs' blog, Thoroughly Good, here.)

Watching and listening links for the Barenboim Prom here.

In the interests of our unfortunate country, I think it's time we kicked out the government and replaced them with people who know what they're talking about through music. It can't be any worse, after all. Following the Proms Coup (as opposed to the more usual Queue), here is the new cabinet.

Ludwig van Beethoven. The greatest ideals and the biggest vision. Also, given his hearing disability, a fantastic symbol for inclusion and equality.

Daniel Barenboim, one of the world's few true statesmen, working together with Beethoven.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for a balancing human touch at the top of the power tree.

Giacomo Meyerbeer, who made a great deal of money - and used it magnanimously.

Felix Mendelssohn, who could charm and befriend anyone and everyone, including royalty.

Sir Edward Elgar, who works closely with Beethoven and Barenboim. A "home-grown" composer whose influences were chiefly European, including Schumann, Brahms and Strauss.

Zoltán Kodály, music's arch-educator with an outlook for both inclusiveness and expertise.

Johann Sebastian Bach, who knew a thing or two about hard work and should have left Anna Magdalena a proper pension. (She ended her life destitute. Bach should fix this before it happens.)

Franz Schubert, who had pacifist leanings.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whose Scottish island landscape and terrifically powerful personality would be a valuable asset.

Dame Ethel Smyth. Cross her at your peril.

Frédéric Chopin, who would evince a profound interest in making sure antibiotics remain effective and available to all.

Antonin Dvorák, who'd enjoy sorting out our trains and would also ensure that everything ran smoothly on the transatlantic front.

Frederick Septimus Kelly, who was not only a fine composer, but also an Olympic gold medallist in 1908, for rowing.

This department is abolished, because we ain't leaving.

Enjoy JDCMB? Help support it!

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...


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" [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.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nureyev's giant leap to the West...of London


In the latest of the BBC's excellent series of short documentaries entitled Witness, the impresario Victor Hochhauser reminisces about the extraordinary personality and artistry of Rudolf Nureyev. UK readers can watch the film here:

It's astonishing, watching Nureyev, to note that however fast the steps he is performing must presumably be, they always look slow. His technical mastery is such that he is never in a hurry. And his charisma is so intense that I'd challenge any viewer to attempt removing their gaze from him for even a couple of seconds.

But for a while, Nureyev lived up the road.

That was long before I even knew where East Sheen was, of course, but now I often go jogging past the house that once belonged to him. It's just outside Richmond Park and is set back from the road beyond a wooden farm-style gate and curving gravel drive. It was chosen for him, possibly because this leafy location in south-west London was reasonably convenient for the Royal Ballet's rehearsal space in Baron's Court - but it did prove rather too far from Covent Garden. The story goes that on one occasion he was late for a performance, so grabbed a taxi to East Putney station to take the District Line into town - but he was in such a hurry that he went the wrong way on the tube and nearly ended up in Wimbledon.

The biography by Julie Kavanagh also includes a story that haunts me particularly on my run route, which takes me through Sheen Common to Bog Gate into Richmond Park itself. This path was frequented, too, by the great dancer in his time, but he was haunted by something else: the potential presence of KGB agents whom he feared might be after him. Apparently he would walk that way, anxious that one such being might jump out from behind the bushes. Sometimes, trotting along there first thing in the morning, I think I hear a step behind me in the leaves...but it's usually someone walking five other people's dogs, or a flock of the green parakeets that have colonised the place (both phenomena are new since Nureyev was there).

Nureyev was an emblem of his times - the Russian artist escaping the Soviet Union to seek artistic freedom - and a firebrand who transformed the nature of his art. Later, his death of AIDS-related illness aged only 53 made him an emblem, too, of the first generation blighted by the HIV virus. But for many among British audiences, a special defining moment was his partnership with Margot Fonteyn, which rejuvenated the career and indeed the spirit of that equally legendary ballerina. In her life history, as related on film by Tony Palmer, Nureyev is one of the few people who emerge as a true friend and support to her.

I was just too young to see them dance together. I remember my parents putting in an application for tickets the last time they performed Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden, sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s. Seats were scarce and we didn't succeed. When notification arrived, I, already a small balletomane, shut myself in the bathroom and howled. Thank goodness for film. Here they are in Act IV of Swan Lake.

If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please make a contribution to its year of development, here.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Golden sounds from a painful world

This is a big Erich Wolfgang Korngold year, marking both the 120th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 60th of his death. Not that you'd know it from anyone's programming around here. But Michael Haas, director of research at the Jewish Music Institute's International Centre of Suppressed Music at Royal Holloway College, has just written a valuable article about Das Wunder der Heliane, the composer's fourth, largest and most controversial opera. (Read it here.)

Premiered in 1927, Heliane is a strange, mystical, dystopian tale of redemption through love. Our hero is a nameless Stranger who has been jailed for attempting to bring love to a loveless realm. Our heroine is Queen Heliane, the sole named character, wife of the cruel and apparently impotent Ruler. Heliane and the Stranger fall in love...

Ten years ago the opera received its only UK performance to date, in concert. It didn't go well. The Royal Festival Hall platform was too small to accommodate both the vast orchestra and all the vocal soloists, so the singers were placed in the choir above and behind the orchestra, but the less-than-ideal demands this created seemed challenging for all concerned. It was a pity, to say the least, because I was at the rehearsals and it sounded a great deal better. Those at the performance weren't to know that, though. The opera celebrates the sanctity of sexual consummation between people who really love one another, something you'd think would scarcely raise hackles. Yet one critic condemned the work for being blasphemous (yes, really) and dismissed it as "Entartete Musik": a nefarious Nazi-coined term that Korngold himself would have known all too well.

It's slightly sad to observe that the British, in tribal musical-taste terms, appear to have problems with Korngold that don't apply quite as universally elsewhere. In other countries his third opera, Die tote Stadt has become standard repertoire. In the UK, it has once more vanished into obscurity after one short run at Covent Garden. As for Heliane, it basically doesn't stand a chance in Brexit Island. Yet with wonderful irony, Haas points out some strong similarities between the scenarios of this opera and a recent UK smash hit: George Benjamin's Written on Skin.

I became interested in Korngold so long ago that I didn't know you weren't meant to like him. Back then, indeed, hardly anyone in this country had heard of him. One of my teachers - American - played me part of Die tote Stadt when I was about 19. I was hooked at once. A year later, deciding on a dissertation topic at Cambridge, I came across the LP of the Erich Leinsdorf recording on a table in Dr Derrick Puffett's rooms and mentioned my enthusiasm to him. Dr Puffett - who was one of the most acute and positively terrifying musical intellectuals in the faculty - encouraged me to go ahead with a study of the piece and offered to be my supervisor for it.

Some years later I had the chance to write a short biography of a 20th-century composer and suggested Korngold because I was fascinated by his life story. A child prodigy in Mahler's Vienna. His appalling relationship with his father - what composer could be unlucky enough to be the son of a powerful critic? The rise of the Nazis; the controversies his father caused; the split in musical style of the times. The escape to Hollywood; Warner Brothers, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis; and the attempted, but hopeless, return to Vienna. What a life. What an emblem of the 20th century.

One didn't imagine things could get worse still for Korngold's reputation after all that. But I can't begin to tell you about the quantity of flak I've taken over the years simply for liking this composer's generous-spirited and lavishly beautiful music and finding his story worth telling.

Not all music is for everyone. Composers' voices speak to us, or don't. There are some unfortunate souls who don't like Brahms. There are a few very popular composers to whose music I'm fairly allergic; some whose language I have grown into and come to love with the years (notably Bartók and Boulez); others, like Monteverdi, who stand out like Mount Ararat amid flatlands of other stuff that possibly is considered more interesting than it really is. It isn't a matter of life or death if you don't happen to get along with a particular compositional personality.

But I do think you need to pause for thought, now and then, and look at where our cultural conditioning comes from and, to some degree, how our tastes might be formed.

Another example: I'm still struck by the ease with which some dismiss Mendelssohn as glib, shallow and too happy. His apparent ease of style came from obsessive hard work and continual revision; as for too happy, he worked himself first into the ground and then into a premature grave. Those criticisms were actually deliberate anti-Semitic slurs promulgated against him as the Nazis attempted to poison public opinion over the most popular violin concerto in Germany, prior to banning it. Yet their "arguments" can still sometimes be heard in concert hall foyers, repeated almost as if by rote. Evidence of Mendelssohn's working patterns, his life and intellectual breadth of knowledge, his emotional state, and so forth, all go against such a judgement. But few stop to consider what they're saying and why.

Korngold had the luck to find himself exiled in Hollywood, rather than being murdered in a concentration camp after Hitler's Anschluss, which would almost certainly have befallen him had he been in Vienna on 12 March 1938. Nevertheless, his world was destroyed, his colleagues killed or ruined and his career in Europe torn to shreds; and his family and friends who survived did so by the skin of their teeth. Because he did survive, because he was therefore one of the "lucky" ones, his story is generally portrayed as one of good fortune. But having your life, livelihood and reputation shattered by racism, dictatorship and war is, if you think about it enough, not very "lucky" at all. Korngold died too young - 60 - and it's clear that his death was hastened by the stress resulting from his historical fate.

The hideous situation faced by those in such a position - any refugees and oppressed peoples, born in the wrong place at the wrong time - is still brushed aside by the millions of more fortunate majority-population individuals who have no clue what others have been through, yet who are themselves no different except by virtue of luck.

It appears that even today we can't cope with the fact that Korngold landed up in Hollywood, even though that was the only way he and his family could survive the destruction of their own world and make ends meet in a new one. The ugly fashion of today's ugly world is to bash refugees. It's still happening to Korngold.

Fortunately, though, there are people who love his music. Many are actual musicians. Many of them are violinists who fall in love with the concerto and related pieces. Here's Nicky Benedetti and friends:

Heliane is being performed several times in Europe this year and next. The Volksoper in Vienna has already done it, about six months ago, and now those eager to see it can go to:

Freiburg, concert performance on 22 July
Flanders Opera, Antwerp and Ghent, 15 September - 10 October;
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, March 2018 (starring Sara Jakubiak and Brian Jagde)

Maybe see you there.

If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please show your support for its year of development by donating a subscription amount of your choice here