Saturday, August 26, 2017

A very big noise: ONE DAY ONE CHOIR

'One Day One Choir' sounds singular. But hang on a mo: no fewer than 55 countries are now taking part in this gigantic day of celebration to bring peace (both inner and interpersonal) to us all through singing together. 

One Day One Choir has snowballed in the past three years: next month it will enjoy its biggest event yet, including the participation of 30 cathedrals. Its website describes it as "an inspiring global peace initiative which uses the harmonious power of singing together to unite people around the world on Peace Day, September 21st". It's still building, though, with a special eye on 2018, the final year of the World War I commemorations, so there could be no better time to step up, get involved and add your voices to the worldwide mix.

I asked its instigator and organiser, Jane Hanson, how and why she started on the project and where it goes from here.

JD: What’s the idea behind One Day One Choir? Why this, why now?

Jane Hanson
JH: ODOC arrived as a vision over a period of weeks in 2013. It was always clear that it would be about inspiring/motivating people to sing together for peace and using the amazing powers and qualities of singing to connect and unite people. 

I had been troubled about the unrest in Syria for some time, riots had been taking place in the UK and I was constantly being asked by children what was going to happen and how could they stop being scared. I kept thinking about what was happening and asking myself what could I do to make a small contribution for the better. 

I’d sung in choirs almost all my life (as had my parents and grandparents) and I’d also done research and radio work for the BBC on the power of music and singing together - so I knew this was something that anyone, anywhere in the world could do. I had seen the special and powerful effect singing together had achieved in many communities around the world.  Singing unites and uplifts people more quickly and effectively than almost any other human activity, and I knew it could make a difference by bringing people together and helping them to focus on thoughts and ideas around peace and unity. I’d also run the London Philharmonic Choir, so had connections and had helped out on global choral concerts for Voices for Hospices. I thought that by getting people singing together around the world, I could create something that offered an opportunity to anyone, anywhere, to have a small voice for peace and to feel connected to others with the same aim.

Vladimir Jurowski adds his support
Vladimir Jurowski was part of the vision. I went to him and asked for support, which he gave by bringing the LPO on board and adding his name as an ambassador for the project. Then I had to try and find funding and support for a launch concert. While all these ideas were running around in my head, the government announced that a chunk of money was becoming available to fund projects linked to the World War I commemoration, 14-18, so I thought perhaps I could run a project during these years and get people to unite in their communities and sing together for peace. Unfortunately, despite best attempts and a personal letter to me from the PM saying that ODOC was a very exciting idea, no money from this vast fund was to be forthcoming as it was only for projects linked to and directly commemoration WW1 events, and definitely not for peace projects... 

I almost gave up many times - but something always happened to keep me going. Everyone I spoke with thought the project was a brilliant idea and insisted I carry on. Three months before Peace Day 2014 I had lots of support, but still no funding, when - out of the blue - Radio 3’s The Choir stepped up and offered us a launch concert in the piazza outside Broadcasting House. This, along with media that had built up around the project, kicked us off on 21 September 2014. A conglomerate of choirs comprising The Mixed Up Chorus, London International Gospel Choir, Gospel Oak Community Parents Choir, Cheam Common Infant School Choir and The London Philharmonic Choir sang separately and together in an event broadcast live on Radio 3 and - with the help of various groups and supporters - 100,000 other people around the world also signed up to sing for peace.

JD: What does it take to organise events as big as this? How do you get people involved and spread the word.

JH: Faith, effort, determination, time and commitment - plus the support of friends and others who feel strongly about doing something for unity, community and peace and who love singing. I still do all this for free in my ‘ spare' time, so we don’t have the outreach and impact we would have if we had funding, wider support and back up and staff. But we’re still not doing too badly: lots of people know about us now. I do what I can do in the time I have and try and reach out to other groups who are interested in the same things and who try to help us by spreading the word and by finding some media support as well. 

First one school in Argentina joined in;
this year, six or seven participate
Most of our outreach goes through the website, Facebook and people who have already sung with us and share our values. One man has driven around the UK visiting cathedrals and peace centres and asking them to come on board, a music student in Kansas brought eight choirs on board last year and there are more stories of people taking up the ‘baton' and helping the project to run.

We are also now getting support from Sing UP, Music Mark and Making Music and an increasing number of people love the project and help out by reaching out and spreading the word to others - though obviously we would love LOTS more.

JD: Do you think music can bring peace? If so, how?

JH: By itself, of course, not directly, although singing can be a very peaceful and positive and uniting activity. We are looking at peace of all kinds in this project. We’re not just about non-violence but - perhaps more importantly - about inner peace, and thinking about ways to build and maintain peaceful existence with each other in families, schools, work place, communities, etc. Certainly when people sing together a very powerful bonding takes place. 

The Sixteen's recent Poulenc CD
with a dove, symbol of peace
Singing has been shown scientifically and psychologically to connect and unite people more than any other activity - some people even go as far as to say that that is its purpose. Vladimir Jurowski, for example, definitely believes that singing together has a special sociological power or purpose and helps people and communities to connect and keep linked in a positive way. Then there is the view of Bernstein: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It is also a good teaching tool, especially in schools that work with the project to introduce notions and lessons/thoughts on what peace is and how to help achieve it personally and at school, as well as singing which is the fun and widely connecting part for children. For some schools where singing has taken a back seat of late, it provides a great opportunity to get the whole school singing by coming to it from a different direction. And teachers want ways to communicate with children about global issues, dealing with conflict and talking about peace. More and more schools are signing up, all over the world - already including more than 500 in Pakistan.

JD: Where would you like the project to go from here?

JH: I’d love some big organisation or media group to offer help to take this to more and more people and to help us create a big concert next year that can be screened or streamed to a huge audience around the world. I feel more like the guardian of the project than the owner; it needs help and support now from or wider community groups and leaders.

I would like as many people as possible around the world to engage with the project and sing for unity and peace with us - especially children and schools - and I’d like people to do this more spontaneously themselves in the future. To sing in a pro-active way in their communities without having to be on a social media video, for example, and to reach out to others to bring them together. If there were an annual peace singing event, I’m sure people would love it.

I also want people to take the thoughts and ideas we share about unity and peace (and singing) into their everyday lives, using them however they can to help themselves and their communities - and to be empowered and to have fun with it. 

JD: What would you say to encourage people to take part?

JH: Most people love singing and I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t want to live in a more peaceful or united world. So I would simply ask them to think about this and then get together with a few (or lots of) other people and add their voices to the others singing out.  

It’s not necessary to put on a concert, although people do. You can sing one song to be part of it - anything appropriate for peace (we have some free songs on the website) or you can dedicate something you are already doing, e.g. evensong or chants in temples and mosques or even a pre-planned rehearsal or concert. The Sixteen have just dedicated their concert on 21 September and will be mentioning us before they sing, and the monks at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and at Wat Buddhapadipa Thai Temple will be dedicating their chanting to ODOC and inviting the public to join in. The Wat is organising a special chant event for ODOC this year.

And this is a great and easy project for schools to join, as the whole school can sing in assembly. We provide free songs and support - and children and teachers who’ve already joined us love it.  Increasing numbers of schools now connect with others, or invite parents in to join them

If that’s not inspiring enough, then singing itself is super-good for us in so many ways - it has multiple health benefits including the fact that singing regularly in a choir improves your entire immune system. It literally helps to make us feel uplifted and happy because of the chemicals it stimulates in our brains and it’s a great social activity. Singing connects us to others better than anything else and when we sing together our hearts literally start to beat at the same time. (Our supporter Mark Elder loves that fact)

JD: What do you personally feel about it? What would you say to inspire others?

Karl Jenkins adds his call for participants
JH: At the moment a lot of long days and sleepless nights!  But I know it’s worth it, too, because every time a group signs up or sends a positive message or feedback, there’s a calm inner feeling that you know this is a right thing to be doing and that some people, somewhere, are feeling inspired or supported by it. That’s especially true when it’s children and schools, or people who wouldn’t be singing together with others in any other way. And it feels great every time we get a sign-up from a new country or a well-known group or choir.

What drives me? Well, when you start something, then you have to finish it, as they say, especially when you’ve set very clear and public timelines and intentions! And there's a strong inner knowledge and guiding force that things have to be done to help people find ways to unite with a common voice, as our world seems to have become even more troubled than when the project started. Singing or chanting together is one of the only ways that they can do that - so the aim is to provide a common platform where people can sing their own tunes in their own words and languages, but still create a common harmony and be united with others. 

I don’t even think I have a choice to do this, really. I think it was there in the ether just waiting or wanting to happen and I happened to be the person that had to do it. And anyway, my friends and supporters wouldn’t let me stop now even if I tried - especially as there’s only just over a year to go to our 2018 target!

If you have a vision, a passion, a strong belief or a gut feeling that you can or could do something that matters, to you or other people, then believe in it and keep going, however hard it seems to be! Reach out for all the support you can get. You’ll be amazed how many strangers can step up to help - and keep going.  And don’t attach too much to a specific outcome because, as we have seen with ODOC, it might not go quite the way you pictured, but if the idea is good it will go the way it’s meant to go. Go with the flow. And keep going.

Friday, August 25, 2017

A steamy date in Snape

Spent most of yesterday driving to and from Aldeburgh with the OH to experience a very special night of Strauss and Elgar at the Snape Proms. Renée Fleming sang the Strauss Four Last Songs and the programme was topped and tailed with his Till Eulenspiegel and Elgar's Symphony No.1. On the platform was a familiar presence who's nevertheless unusual in the context of this orchestra. It wasn't his first concert with them by a long chalk, but the first in a little while. So, with apologies to The Guardian's 'Blind Date', here's what happened when Ed Gardner met the LPO.

You'd never think that just behind you is one of the best concert halls in the country

What were they hoping for?
A dynamic partnership of orchestra and conductor in which sympathy is found, sparks can fly and the audience can get really excited about the music. At least, that's usually what they want. 

What did they talk about?
The end of days, intentionally or not. Poor Till is hanged at the end of his Strauss tone poem (I must look up what he's supposed to have done to deserve it - maybe he spoke out about politics...). The Four Last Songs are, well, the four last songs, ending implicitly with the souls of Richard and Pauline rising towards heaven in the form of larks; and Elgar, in his Symphony No.1, takes an eloquent "idée fixe" melody with regular, walking-type accompaniment and then, to use a modern-day trendy word, 'disrupts' it in almost every way conceivable in England in 1908. It was hard not to read the second movement as a macabre, scherzoid battle scene. The final pages, in which the theme returns surrounded by a great musical firework display, seemed simultaneously a celebration and a fearfully pertinent farewell to a vanishing era.

Rehearsal in Snape Maltings
Renée Fleming's performance of the Four Last Songs, and the encores Cäcilie and Morgen, offered a raw revelation of innermost heart, at times almost spoken more than sung; however quiet she goes, her voice still shimmers through the music fabric as only hers can, drawing us in towards her and softly wringing us out. Explaining the encores, she noted that the two they had chosen were early works dating from around the time of Strauss's marriage, and adding: "I just want to say: thank God he married a soprano..."

Any awkward moments?
If so, very few and well masked. 

Good podium manner?
Splendid. Gardner is debonair, extrovert, charismatic, with plenty of audience appeal. For the orchestra, one has the impression he seems clear, positive and cogent, wearing his expertise lightly.

Best things about the meeting?
The freshness of it. Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"

Gardner is a splendid storyteller, pacing the narrative and sustaining tension over long expanses of music with vivid colour and detail around a rock-solid core. 

In addition, it was a massive treat to hear the home band in the Aldeburgh acoustic, which is warm and flattering, bloomy and gorgeous.

Would you send your friends to hear them?
Heavens, yes.

Describe the meeting in three words.
Energetic, inspiring, promising.

What do you think they made of each other?
Very different from one another, but they seemed keen to adapt, to find common ground and to, er, make beautiful music together.

Might they go on somewhere?
They might. We'll have to see.

And...did they kiss?
Definitely having a good old flirt. 

If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be?
Distance. It's a long way to Aldeburgh and we didn't get home til nearly 2am. 

Marks out of 10?

Might they meet again?
I reckon so.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Silver Birch roundup

Curtain front, Roxanna (right) and me, with Jay Wheeler in the middle

I've been away since just after the last night of Silver Birch, so I've only posted one of the reviews here so far. Here's a little selection from among the others. Silver Birch has been without a doubt the most wonderful experience of my professional life to date, so it is kind of nice to know it's gone over OK... Below, some extracts that appear on the Garsington website.

(Since I'm abandoning one's habitual English self-effacement and modesty here, I wouldn't mind adding that The Times review also called my libretto "powerful and poetic" and Roxanna's music "busy and imaginative", while the Financial Times said that the piece "should be a useful stepping-stone to something bigger"...)

Silver Birch
"It's the terrific panache of Karen Gillingham's staging that really socks you between the eyes and ears. It was all superbly played by the Garsington Opera Orchestra, augmented by student instrumentalists and expertly conducted by Douglas Boyd."
Richard Morrison, The Times, 31 July 2017
"...this was a real achievement."
Richard Fairman, Financial Times, 1 August 2017
"A remarkable event with a vast community cast. There is a real sense of vision in this coming together, as clear in the unstoppable energy of the performers as it is in the excellence of the stagecraft displayed in Karen Gillingham's complex production."
George Hall, The Stage, 31 July 2017
"Panufnik and Duchen's achievement is to synthesise personal and poetic experiences, often harrowing and disturbing, into a work of beauty and hope."
Amanda-Jane Doran, Classical Source, 30 July 2017
"A work that is having an impact on performers and audiences alike, and which stands as one of the very best examples of this type of opera."
Sam Smith, Music OMH, 31 July 2017
"A chorus of roof-raising passion and purpose...directed with commanding skill by Karen Gillingham."
Helen Wallace, Arts Desk, 31 July 2017
"This was undoubtedly the most uplifting and moving evening I've spent in the theatre this year. It deserves many more outings - soon."
Susan Elkin, Sardines Magazine, 31 July 2017
Please also read this very moving piece by the mum of one of the participating schoolgirls, explaining how the experience has changed her life:

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Die Meistersinger von Bayreuth

Yes, they did this.
The last scene of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's second act is usually stirring, but doesn't often make the pit of your stomach drop as if you're in the London Underground's oldest lift. But this is Barrie Kosky's new production for the Bayreuth Festival. While white supremacists were marching and murdering in Charlottesville, we were in the Festspielhaus watching as Kosky unleashed across the entire giant plain of a stage an inflatable cartoon head, akin to the vile Nazi-era caricatures of supposedly typical Jewish appearance (as in the picture, but magnified a few hundred times). The riot in the town square here is fermenting an incipient pogrom against the Jewish Beckmesser. And, horrifying to admit, as an interpretation it makes sense.

That probably looks as if Kosky (the Australian director who has sometimes described himself as a "gay, Jewish kangaroo" - see my interview with him in the JC here) is bashing us over the head. Believe it or not, he isn't - or not solely. This masterful production poses many, many questions, but offers no easy answers. Kosky's laser-like imagination deftly clinches the linking image as one of judgment: the 'marker' is judging Walther, and Sachs judging Beckmesser, in the courtroom in which the Nuremberg Trials were held. Ultimately Sachs delivers his speech on great German art alone in the witness stand, before turning to conduct a newly visible orchestra to prove his point. At this moment, the audience must become the judges. We are saved by art alone... Or are we? That is up to us.

Saved by art alone?

We are not only judging Sachs, though - because this Sachs is Wagner. The overture shows us the interior of the composer's nearby house, Wahnfried, and as the first chords blaze out, the doors fly open and in strides the maestro, complete with his two Newfoundland dogs. We soon meet Cosima, who's been upstairs with a migraine; her father, Franz Liszt; a guest, the conductor Hermann Levi (who was the son of a rabbi, but was Wagner's choice to conduct the premiere of Parsifal). There's the spectacle of Wagner and Liszt playing this music to their captive audience as a piano duet, and the mercurial Wagner becomes puppet-master, directing everybody, while Levi is shown up as an outsider, reluctant to kneel for prayer - he's Jewish, but also he has gammy knees. A portrait of Cosima wins a central role, and soon from inside the piano emerge the mastersingers in 16th-century costume...

Wagner is transformed into Sachs; and his younger self, Walther; and his younger self still, David the apprentice; and two young boys in similar costume, perhaps Siegfried, or Wolfgang and Wieland. Cosima becomes Eva, if without such properties of recreated youth, and Liszt is her dad, Pogner. And Levi is coerced by the Master into becoming Beckmesser.

One can, of course, pick holes in the concept if one wants to - Eva/Cosima's hoppity-skippity ways in her dignified older-woman black crinoline don't always work convincingly. Yet the whole is carried out with the kind of flair, wealth of detail and technical brilliance that reduces such matters to relatively minor caveats. The crowd-scenes' Bosch-like ferments are punctuated by startling moments of stillness. Grass matting rises to fly skywards; Wahnfried wheels away, in its entirety, into the distance. (And how do those characters get into the piano to climb out of it? From row 24, the illusion of magic seemed complete.)

But the audacity of unfurling that giant antisemitic caricature is something that probably would only be acceptable in Bayreuth, a festival fated always to seek atonement for its historical disgrace. Today many scholars assert that Beckmesser was never intended as a Jewish caricature, while others declare it's obvious that he is one. Some productions hint at the issue genteelly - David McVicar's Glyndebourne production is a case in point - while others appear to by-pass it, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper's fascinating 1960s-set staging. Kosky grabs the issue and faces it, head on. That takes quite some guts. Besides, dramaturgically, historically, in terms of Wagner and Cosima's relationship, personalities and attitudes, the production seems watertight.

Kränzle & Volle as Beckmesser & Sachs
Musically things were not always as even as one might wish, although the best was the best of all the best. The peerless Beckmesser of Johannes Martin Kränzle was cherishable, with subtle, beautiful singing and detailed characterisation, carrying off both humour and humiliation with convincing aplomb. Michael Volle as Sachs/Wagner matched him in magnificence: a huge, charismatic personality with vast velvety voice, Volle seems effortlessly to hold stage and audience in the proverbial palm of his hand. The relationship between the two characters proved, as it should, the lynchpin of the entire edifice.

As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt had virtually everything, including the requisite metallic cut-through tone to carry off the rigours of the role and the power to soar over the textures, and in this context it's hard to ignore the way that blond "Aryan" look contrasts with the bearded Beckmesser when vying for Eva's affection. Günther Groissböck presented an exceptionally colourful and beautiful-toned Pogner, while Daniel Behle was a warm and mercurial David, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a mellifluous Magdalena despite the flighty character assigned to her (as an aside, one couldn't help feeling that the female characters didn't fare too well in this staging). And the chorus was an utter glory. Less happy, sadly, was the Eva of Anne Schwanewilms, who seemed at times to be struggling vocally. Philippe Jordan's conducting slid towards some ponderous tempi; indeed, a couple of times one feared things were about to grind to a halt. Some of the soloists appeared to do their level best to chivvy the pace along.

A mixed evening, then, but one that has provided endless food for thought well beyond the Festival Bratwurst. I'd love to see it several more times.

Photo credits: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele

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Tuesday, August 01, 2017


Now that the Silver Birch excitement is behind us, it's time for a bit of a break. Back in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, you could... some of the reviews:

...make a pledge to MEETING ODETTE, my new novel based (in a slightly off-the-wall way) on Swan Lake tickets for one of our GHOST VARIATIONS concerts with David Le Page and Viv McLean:
• 23 October: Brasserie Zédel, just off Piccadilly Circus - 0207 734 4888
• 3 November: Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove
• 19 November: Burgh House, Hampstead
• 2 January: Lampeter House, Pembrokeshire
• 22 February: Leicester Lunchtime Concerts
(more booking details on the posters, left - click to enlarge)

...and/or ALICIA'S GIFT with Viv:
• 20 November: Barnes Music Society, The Old Sorting Office, London SW13 - email

...and support JDCMB's Year of Development, here: