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

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Crossing the line of dreams

Roxanna Panufnik and I have been working on our first collaboration since Silver Birch. It's being premiered this week in Baltimore under the joint batons of Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi. Yes, both of them. It's for double choir, double orchestra and two conductors. And it is about two powerful women (by which I don't mean either them or us, at least not first of all...).

Harriet Tubman
source: National Geographic
Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, India, and Harriet Tubman, who saved hundreds from slavery in America before, during and after the Civil War, obviously never met in real life. But they were near-contemporaries and both gave their lives to the cause of freedom for their people. Harriet Tubman lived to a ripe old age and was venerated as 'Moses'. Rani Lakshmibai was killed in battle at the age of 29. The Rani has recently been the subject of a major biopic, but we wrote this piece before we knew about that. Harriet Tubman's previous musical incarnations include a whole opera by the wonderful Thea Musgrave, which is long overdue for a revival or three.

Rani Lakshmibai
Source: Real Bharat
The piece is called Across the Line of Dreams and you can hear it in three concerts on 14, 15 and 16 March, the first in the Music Center at Strathmore, the other two at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is joined by the University of Maryland Concert Choir. More info and booking here.

Here is an introduction to the piece, which Roxanna and I have written for the programme. We hope you'll enjoy this extraordinary dream meeting...



ACROSS THE LINE OF DREAMS – Celebrating Harriet Tubman & Rani Lakshmibai
Words: Jessica Duchen (JD)                      Music: Roxanna Panufnik (RP)


JD: In Across the Line of Dreams, two choirs with two conductors tell the stories of two extraordinary women who gave everything to save their people.

Harriet Tubman and Rani Lakshmibai came from opposite sides of the world and, of course, never met - but they had more in common than you might think. 

Both were born in the 1820s. Each decided to fight for her people’s freedom. Each underwent a change of name, symbolising a new, altered state of being. Each held fast to her faith. And each risked her life for a cause greater than herself. Both have passed into the realms of legend.

RP: Each heroine is represented by one conductor, one choir and half of the orchestra – Harriet has woodwinds, brass and percussion and Lakshmibai is accompanied by harp, piano and strings.

JD: Born Araminta (‘Minty’) Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822, Harriet Tubman fled slavery in 1849 and became active in the ‘underground railroad’, a network that aided the escape of slaves from the deep south of the US, via which she helped to rescue dozens. Having taken her husband John Tubman’s surname, she adopted her mother’s first name to reinvent herself. She was nicknamed ‘Moses’ for leading her people to freedom. She died in 1913 aged about 90. 

RP: Harriet was fervently Christian, so some of her music has a hymn-like quality with a drone figuration often heard in spirituals. Not much is known about her ancestry, but it is believed that her maternal grandmother, Modesty, was brought to the US on a slave ship from West Africa and was thought to be of the Asante (a.k.a. Ashanti) tribe, who came from Ghana. Therefore I’ve used Ghanaian drum patterns to drive her music. While researching Asante music, I came across Joseph S. Kaminski’s excellent book Asante Ntahera Trumpets in Ghana– in it, he has transcribed a signature motif, from Asantehene’s mmentia musicians“Atoto wore sane” which means: “We are removing the knot”. This refers to a legendry knot that could only be untied by the true ruler, yet can also describe Harriet’s brave missions. 

Manikarnika in childhood
Source: Real Bharat
JD: Rani Lakshmibai was born Manikarnika Tambe in Varanasi, by the Ganges, in 1828. Married off to the Rani of the princely state of Jhansi, she took the crown after her husband’s death. Their only child died in infancy, after which she adopted a young boy, Damodar, intending him to inherit her throne. The controlling British East India Company refused to recognise him as heir and attempted to exile Lakshmibai. When a major rebellion took place against the British in 1857, and was horribly crushed, she led her forces into battle herself. She died of her wounds, aged only 29. A British officer paid tribute to Lakshmibai after her death, terming her “the bravest and the best”. 

RP: There is a famous lament “Babul Mora” about Lakshmibai, written by the Nawab of Lucknow, after the battle in which she lost her life. It mourns her leaving her family and all she knows behind, as she is taken away to be married to Gangadhar Rao, and it now exists in many versions. It was originally written in the Bhairavi mode, with which I have created my own lament. I have also composed my own “Powada” – a popular heroic or military ballad, which was used to eulogize heroic leaders. Again there are many examples of this form, but a common musical thread is a declamatory delivery of repeated singenotes, followed by a descending scale (for which I’ve used the Bhairav, Purvi and Ãsãvan modes). We finish, at the end of Lakshmibai’s life, with a return to the Bhairavi lament.

JD: Across the Line of Dreamsis in three parts. The first section is devoted to Harriet Tubman. There follows a contrasting episode telling the story of Rani Lakshmibai. Finally we imagine a dialogue showing the two women’s similarities, differences and inspirational natures. 

RP: This is where the two conductors come to the fore – Harriet’s music is in 4 and Lakshmibai’s simultaneously in 5. I was determined that while these two women retained their unique musical identities, they would merge to create a driving energy.

Acknowledgements
RP: I am deeply grateful to Joseph Kaminski for allowing me to use his transcription of “Atoto wore sane” and to the Asantehene who, through Kaminski, authorized the use of this chant for educational and artistic purposes. Also to Justin Scarimbolo for 19thcentury Indian music, Richard Williams & Richard Widdess for their introduction to Powadas and James Gardner for trying, heroically, to teach me Ghanaian drumming. Thank you, most of all, to Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi for commissioning the work, along with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Jessica and I have loved every step of this process.
JD & RP, 11thDecember 2018



Friday, December 21, 2018

WELCOME TO THE JDCMB CHOCOLATE SILVER AWARDS 2018



Deck the halls with chocolate silver, 
Falalalalaaaah, meow me-ow...

If you've been reading JDCMB for a while, you'll know that TODAY'S THE DAY. It's the Winter Solstice, which means it's time for our very own virtual awards ceremony, in which we take a lighthearted look back at the year's peaks and plunges, while Ricki (chocolate silver) and Cosi (silver) present our winners with a special prize purr and let them stroke their luxuriant fur.

Please come in. Welcome to the CyperPoshPlace! 

No need to stand on ceremony here. All are welcome. No tickets are checked, no charges made for the cloakroom, and the CyberBubbly, being virtual, is limitless free to all and won't make you drunk. Just the right degree of pleasantly tipsy, if you so wish.

It's been a...well, I can't remember a year quite like this one. It's tense. Everyone is anxious and exhausted and we still don't know what the heck is going to happen to us all, let alone the music business, in three months' time. We, dear world, are the proud owners of a government that currently seems determined to throw us all over a cliff, below which there are food shortages, medicine shortages, island gridlock, troops on the streets, mass unemployment and a violent economic crash, just to prove that 'Brexit' can be done - when actually it can't. It's like trying to take the vodka out of the martini after it's been shaken and stirred. Good countries do occasionally go mad and learn horrific lessons in the worst possible way. We can't be certain that that's not happening to us now.

Message in a bottle: Britain calling. HELP! Please send chocolate. 

[PING. yesterday I went to Brussels on Eurostar. Stopped here en route home.]




Right. Now that that's out of the way, let's PARTAAY like it's 2006!

Have a drink, enjoy our cybercanapes, meet and greet the great and famous of many countries and all centuries who have come to celebrate with us. Here's Ludwig, with Josephine on his arm - at last. Here's Anna Magdalena, pulling a grumbling Johann Sebastian away from his work. Over there Robert Schumann is giving Steven Isserlis a hug, and Fryderyk Chopin, holding a flat parcel about the size of a mazurka manuscript, is asking if anyone's seen Alan Walker arriving, please, because he has a gift for him. I personally am going up to embrace Gabriel Fauré before we do anything else... merci, mon cher Monsieur Gabriel, et grand bisous! The rainbow glitter balls are spinning, gold bit-lets are dropping from the ceiling and Ricki and Cosi are ensconced upon their silken cushions, ready to present the prizes.

Quiet, please! Thank you... First, let's have a huge round of applause for each and every musician who has touched the hearts of his/her audience this year. You're wonderful. You help make life worth living. We love you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your inspirational artistry.

👏👏👏👏👏👏💜💜💜🎶🎶🎶🎵🎹🎻🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉


The first prize, though, goes to Ricki himself.



BEST CAT: RICKI

Because of everything that happened this year, the very best was that Ricki survived. In April he came down with a terrible infection: pyothorax, which turned into sepsis. We had to rush him to an animal hospital near Luton Airport and nobody really thought he was going to live. He was in there for a week and a half and we had twice-daily reports - some hopeful, others less so, several times asking if we wanted to grant permission for him to be put down if in the night he took a terrible turn for the worse. It was agony. Ricki is the sweetest-natured cat in the whole world, he's my personal most-special-cat-ever, and he wasn't even four years old. Against all the odds, by some miracle, he pulled through. He's now bouncing happily around doing megapurrs and chasing his own tail when he's not chasing his sister or mellowing out on the armchair in my study while I work.

NB: One person wasn't too happy about this: Cosi, whose nose promised to be thoroughly out of joint. She was furious when he came home and she no longer had Sole Cat status. This prize has involved some serious trade-offs including copious quantities of fish.


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ICON OF THE YEAR

It's got to be Leonard Bernstein. The year's been bookended by super-Bernstein: Wonderful Town and 'The Age of Anxiety' with Simon Rattle and the LSO back in January was the most fun I've ever had without joining in a conga. Wonderful Town went wonderfully to town. Bravi. And the other weekend I adored hearing Candide live again - one of my big favourites, for all its flaws. 

And what an injection of energy this centenary has been: bursting out all over with glorious tunes, snarky, sparkly lyrics, dazzling drama and the musical world's most enormous heart. Here's Lenny himself, with the incomparable Christa Ludwig and castanets, a long way from Rovko-Gubernya - the superbly cutting celebration of internationalism, from Candide.




SINGER OF THE YEAR


Sarah Connolly at the centre of the Brexit protest
Photo: EFE (from Las Provincias.es)

Step forward, please, Dame Sarah Connolly! You have been a searing firebrand of inspiration to us all, throwing your weight into anti-Brexit campaigning, and offering a Fricka in the Covent Garden Ring cycle whose power and magnetism makes the whole story turn upon her intervention. Thank you for your glorious singing.

Here's a mesmerising aria from Handel's Ariodante.



ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR



Hello and welcome, dear Kathryn Stott! What a privilege it was to be part of your Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville this summer. (OK, it was winter there, but it sure didn't feel like it.) Being up close in an intensely programmed week of musical festivities that run for round about 12 hours every day, one gets to see how things work, and I soon realised there's nothing you can't do. You put together a programme of glorious variety and dazzling diversity, played a phenomenal range of chamber music under extraordinary pressure, kept cheerful and social and even went paddling at the tropical island concert [above]. Saying Brava Bravissima is not enough. I note that Ricki and Cosi are both letting you do their tummy fur, which is very special and not often permitted.

Come on, play us some Fauré. You know you want to. I have him here in person, ready to cheer you on.



INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR


Boris Giltburg
Photo: Sasha Gusov

This award goes to Boris Giltburg, partly because I'm furious to have missed two of his recitals this year for different reasons. There's a glut of glorious piano playing out there are the moment, but only a handful of musicians to whose recordings I find I have to listen flat out on the floor with the volume right up and sod what the neighbours think. (Actually, that's not fair, because we have wonderful neighbours.)

After I commented on this, thinking that it was more characteristic behaviour for heavy metal fans, Boris sent me a tweet saying he's a bit of a metal-head himself and recommending some tracks for me to try. I tried Metallica. I loved it. (Yes, there's a genre specially for people who seek all-out-intense virtuoso musical experiences and have long curly hair.) Step up to the podium, please, Boris!



YOUTHFUL ARTIST OF THE YEAR


Fatma Said
Photo: from BBC website
Just listen to this Brahms song from the incredible young Egyptian soprano Fatma Said, currently one of the BBC New Generation Artists. What more could I say?! Welcome a thousand times, Fatma!




ARTIST OF THE YEAR


Roxanna Panufnik

Step up, my wonderful composer colleague and collaborator-in-chief, Roxanna Panufnik, who has been flying high this year, which contained her half-century celebrations. What a joy it was to see her bring the houses down at the Proms and Symphony Hall, with music that is growing, deepening, daring more and more. (You can hear our next joint effort in Baltimore in March, by the way, under the batons of Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi...)

Here's Roxanna's 'Unending Love', from her latest album Celestial Bird, sung by Ex Cathedra




AND ONE STUFFED TURKEY

An orchestral director who was in favour of Brexit, despite running an orchestra that depends on carnet-free, visa-free touring and includes members from some 22 nationalities, most of them European. He may have changed his mind for all I know, but it's a bit bloody late now. For shame. 


PROUDEST MOMENTS

Sharing a stage with Roderick Williams, Siobhan Stagg and the Goldner String Quartet among other wonderful musicians in Australia, for Being Mrs Bach, is something I'll remember all my life with great joy and slight disbelief that it really happened. But it did, and it was great.

Going to Paris to see the manuscript of the Fauré Requiem was also unforgettable - what a joy to explore its marvels together with Bob Chilcott and the BBC Radio 4 team! I came over quite tearful. The result was on 'Tales from the Stave'.

I've been working on more librettos since Silver Birch and am delighted with the new youth opera that Paul Fincham and I are writing. It is scheduled for Garsington on 2 August 2019 and it's an adaptation and updating of Wilde's The Happy Prince – to The Happy Princess. Paul has been working in the City for a few decades, but after winning an award for his first film score, he's ditched the day job to get back to his first vocation. In his Cambridge days he was music director of the Footlights, working with the likes of Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie, and I can promise a few very persistent ear-worms are finding their way into the new piece.

More pieces with Roxanna are also in the pipeline, and so is one with another well-established composer whom I greatly admire, but we can't announce it just yet.

I can say, though, that writing librettos is my favourite thing in the whole world and if I'd realised this 20 years ago I'd just have done that to the exclusion of as much as possible else. It's a task that is creative and collaborative - there's nothing lonely about it. It blends words and music to the ultimate degree. And it culminates in a live musical experience so you see people actually responding and you feel the vibration in the theatre. I love love love love love it.

Last but by no means least, Odette made target in June and the next few months were devoted to getting it ready for publication. It's out now, and flying. The blog tour this past week has produced some reviews that collectively show that the book does what I wanted it to do, and after 26 years, it's wonderful to see people enjoying it.


WEIRDEST MOMENTS

There are always a few, and 2018 was no exception. 

There was the time my husband challenged Norman Lebrecht to a duel after the celebrated Slipped Disc blogger took issue with some of the decisions made during the Radio 4 Women's Hour Power List. Glad to say the cats prevented piss-takes at dawn.

There was the other night. For some reason we thought it would be clever to go to Iceland in the dead of winter to see the Northern Lights. We reckoned without the fact that other sightseeing has to be done in the few scant existing daylight hours, and that late-night excursions looking for the Aurora involve standing around for hours in sub-zero temperatures, and we both got sick. We did see the Northern Lights, though - sort of. A kind of grey misty effect on the horizon, with some sparky, starry things jumping about within it. Here's my photo of it.



Otherwise...the whole year's been a bit weird, and I fear the next will be more so. 

Good luck, everyone, and solidarity. Let's pull together and try to stop this disaster while we still can. And don't forget the chocolate.







Saturday, November 17, 2018

Faithful Journey is up and running




Some years back Roxanna Panufnik was asked to write a choral work mixing the Latin Mass with a selection of Estonian poems. The result was Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life, in which the Latin Mass movements were interspersed with Estonian poems. Her big dream thereafter was to create a Polish equivalent. Now it's here, and its title is Faithful Journey. The piece is the latest in a massive year for her - no better way to celebrate her half-century - so I asked her a few questions about it, and you can hear an extract and preview in the CBSO video above. 

The oratorio is a co-commission from the CBSO and the Polish Radio Orchestra and had its world premiere earlier this month in Katowice. It will be heard for the first time in the UK at Symphony Hall Birmingham on 21 November, with soprano Mary Bevan and the CBSO and Chorus conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (her first concert back from maternity leave). I'll be off to hear it.

Roxanna writes:


2018 could not pass without my marking it in the most significant way I could. I wanted to celebrate both the centenary of Poland’s becoming an Independent State and my own first half century of life with a meaningful tribute to my Anglo-Polish roots. Hence, this oratorio – settings of some of Poland’s finest poets of the last hundred years, in Polish and English, framing a Latin Mass and incorporating traditional Polish folk music and its sometimes soulful, sometimes quirky, elements. Over the summer of 2017 I listened to five hundred and thirty-eight tracks of Polish folk music and you will hear my very favourite eight in this piece.
I have chosen a Polish poem to represent an historical moment from each decade of the last century, with the final one looking, with hope, to the future with a prayer for peace.
Because I am half English and half Polish (physically and legally, having been given Polish Citizenship in 2017) all the poems are performed in both languages simultaneously – the soprano soloist singing in one language and the choir accompanying her with key words from the other. The Mass text remains in universal Latin.
You can read the rest of her programme note online, here: https://cbso.co.uk/news/faithful-journey-a-mass-for-poland-programme-note


JD: What is Faithful Journey? Why this, why now?

RP: It's an oratorio, marking a centenary of Poland’s re-Independence after WWI.  

JD: How did the commission come about? 

RP: The concept was my idea (modelled on something similar I did for Tallinn Philharmonic when Tallinn was European Capital of Culture). I also wanted to do something really profound and significant to mark my half centenary this year and my new Polish citizenship.   

JD: What does the title signify? 

RP: It’s taken from the last poem “Save me, Guide me, faithful Journey” but I think beautifully sums up the journey of faith (religious and secular) driving Poles through tumultuous times.

JD: I know the piece is deeply meaningful to you and you’ve been wanting to write such a work for a long time. Did that emotional weight, the sense of e.g. “here’s my dream piece, finally going onto the page...” affect you at all when you were actually writing the music? 

RP: I spent so long researching the texts and the Polish folk music that once I started writing it felt very organic and every part of my heart and soul has gone into this.

JD: You’ve set the words of the Latin Mass many times before. Do you have somehow to "clear out” the echoes of the others in order to create a new version? If so, how do you do that? 

RP: Because I was starting with Polish folk songs for the Mass part I don’t need to “eject” any previous music I’d written!

JD: How close do you feel to the Poland’s musical culture and how is that reflected in this work? 

RP: Poles express themselves culturally through 110% emotion - that’s me, too!

JD: Your father’s escape from Communist Poland was very dramatic and dangerous, and its echoes must have had a major impact on you as you grew up - could you tell us something about that, please? Is there a sense of coming full circle now, or is it more a matter of fresh perspective from 2018 with the Brexit negotiations in, er, the state they're in. 

RP: I didn’t really understand what he had gone through, when I was a child, and its only in recent years when Ive had my own children that Ive really begun to be able to imagine what it must be like trying to look after vulnerable loved ones in times of great danger. When ever I am scared of something, I think about his courage - and it rubs off on me.

JD: How did you choose the texts for Faithful Journey

RP: I worked with two translators who had worked extensively with Polish poetry - we discussed what I wanted from each poem (which depicts a historical or atmospheric moment in time, each decade since 1918) and they’d source poems for me to choose from.

JD: The Polish language is rather challenging [Faithful Journey is sung in Latin, Polish and English, sometimes the latter two simultaneously]. How have you dealt with it? 

RP: Well, I speak a little and therefore have a headstart with pronunciation and prosody - I had hoped it would help my grasp of its impossible grammar but I’m still waiting…! 

JD: This has been quite a year for you: this piece, the Last Night of the Proms commission, the CD ‘Celestial Bird’ being received with open arms, and of course the after-echoes of Silver Birch (Garsington Opera, 2017). Where to next? 

RP: Bed - I’m exhausted! But it has been brilliant and my next ambition is to write a full-length EPIC opera!

Faithful Journey by Roxanna Panufnik is at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Wednesday 21 November. Tickets here. 


Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light - an extract from Roxanna's piece for the Last Night of the Proms


Sunday, September 09, 2018

Last Night of the Proms: musical magic among the blue berets

Roxanna Panufnik takes a bow. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Well, we needn't have worried. What usually happens at the Last Night of the Proms happened again: differences are put aside, all are welcomed in with flag of whatever hue, and there's one great big jamboree of a musical party, where we get to join in. A few years back (2013, I think, was the last time I was there) it struck me that what actually matters in those audience songs is not the content, but the fact that we're all there and singing together, and singing with the professionals and the orchestra and, in this case, Gerald Finley and Sir Andrew Davis. Nothing brings people together like singing. Goodness knows why, but it's true and you can feel it, palpably.

It was a big night. Roxanna Panufnik's beautiful and very atmospheric new Proms commission, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, had its world premiere; saxophonist Jess Gillam must surely have shot to superstardom, music poring from every cell; Finley held the stage as only he can; and Davis looked as if he was back in situ after one day, not 18 years. 


Taster:
Outside the Royal Albert Hall blue-bereted devotees were handing out free EU flags. A great many people accepted them, while die-hards with the Union Jack looked on askance and muttered. But inside, all differences were firmly put aside: every flag under the sun was out for the Last Night party, along with the glitter poppers, an inflatable parrot and a model kangaroo.  On the podium, a familiar figure: Sir Andrew Davis, long-ago emeritus conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, owning the night again after some 18 years away, but as much at ease as if he’d tackled the job only yesterday. And his cavalcade of music celebrated the old, the new and, if not quite the borrowed, then certainly the blue – Stanford’s The Blue Bird, enjoying rare, richly deserved prominence. ..

Sunday, July 15, 2018

'Silver Birch' is in the SWAP'ra Gala!



I've done an interview for SWAP'ra, the new charity which aims to change the opera world to make it more user-friendly, all round, for women and parents.

Support for Women And Parents in Opera will be holding an inaugural gala concert at Opera Holland Park on 31 July consisting of extracts from operas famous and less so, in which all the performers and directors are female (though some of the composers, like Mozart and Strauss, were blokes...). Much to our delight, they're also including a scene from Roxanna Panufnik's and my Silver Birch - Anna's aria, in which she tells her son Jack that she will never let him risk his life. Helen Sherman plays our heroine and our original director, Karen Gillingham, will stage it. To my intense frustration, I won't be there. I have no objection to visiting Australia this summer, but I'm sorry to miss Silver Birch's first extract to be performed in London.

The full gala line-up is here. Do go along - there's treat upon treat upon treat, culminating with the Trio from Der Rosenkavalier starring Janis Kelly, Diana Montague and Mary Bevan, conducted by Jessica Cottis. Booking here.


Taster of my interview is below, and there are lots of other hard-hitting, tell-it-like-it-is interviews with the stars of the gala on the SWAP'ra website.

So many of the staple operas and repertoire are stories and music written by men. Why do you think this is, and do you think that a composer’s/librettist’s gender has any bearing on the kind of music she/he writes?

Much of this is historic. Let’s not forget that at present we are celebrating only 100 years of any British women having had the right to vote! Most of the world’s staple diet of opera is older than that; inevitably, women were not often able to be part of the creative teams as their fathers had to have accorded them a suitable musical education and their husbands had to permit their continuation of career (yuck) (but some did, and hooray for them). Plenty of works by women are crying out for rediscovery and they are now starting to be noticed. If more women composers are to be explored and resuscitated, it will also take the involvement of opera’s administrative framework to find, champion and stage them. It’s easier to get audiences into well-known pieces (though Silver Birch was totally sold out ☺ ) and it’s easy for operatic organisations to be…well, maybe a little bit lazy in this regard.

Does a composer/librettist’s gender have any bearing on the music? No. To prove it, try listening blind. I heard some songs recently by a composer named Poldowski and was impressed by their invention, their tremendous energy, their vivid colours and their beauty, and wondered why I’d never heard of him before. Then I looked him up. Turns out he was a she. ‘Poldowski’ was the pseudonym of Irène Wieniawska, later Lady Dean Paul, daughter of Henryk Wieniawski. She’s amazing.


SWAP’ra Supporting Women and Parents in Opera – was established in response to a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry. The ultimate aim is to foster an environment in which a female CEO, Music Director, Artistic Director, Conductor, Composer or Librettist is no longer noteworthy.
The founders – Sophie Gilpin, Ella Marchment, Anna Patalong, Madeleine Pierard, and Kitty Whately – will address the gender imbalance in opera by encouraging best practice strategies for diversity and inclusivity, and effect industry-wide positive change by working to dismantle barriers for women and parents in leadership positions and senior artistic roles. Acting in an advisory capacity, SWAP’ra will work alongside a range of organisations to develop projects and schemes to further support or nurture female artistic talent.
Funds raised by this inaugural SWAP’ra gala will enable the organisation to make significant change in the industry. For more information, please visit the website: www.swap-ra.org

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Proms news: Roxanna rules the airwaves!

It's the Proms launch today and the great news is that the Last Night commission goes to our very own Roxanna Panufnik!

Roxanna rules the waves

She is writing a choral piece, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, for the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers involving a poem by the World War I poet Isaac Rosenberg and lines from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

Today's tension is reduced, of course, by the fact that the whole programme went online at 7am, so there will be no repeat of the little adrenaline rush that accompanied the opening of the nice fat brochure at the press briefing, let alone of the time I teared up there on seeing the words KORNGOLD SYMPHONY on a Proms page for the first time ever. Everyone is tweeting their highlights and I've had a quick zip through the website to see what jumps out. No doubt I will have missed plenty, so please forgive me if your favourite concert does not appear in this post...

For opening night there is another new commission, this time from Anna Meredith: Five Telegrams occupies the whole second half of the first Prom, exploring communications from the front line of World War I, involving chorus, orchestra, projections and youth choir, in collaboration with 59 Productions. Indeed, it's a season in which the Proms sets out its stall for the celebration of female as well as male composers, with 24 featured across the two-month season. It does seem extraordinary to think that amid more than 90 concerts, 24 female composers is still really a lot... Eight are world premieres from composers receiving their first BBC commissions, including a piece by the splendid Laura Mvula and one by Bushra El-Turk. Tansy Davies's 9/11 opera Between Worlds is represented by the world premiere of a new orchestral suite from it, entitled What Did We See? Among the longer-established names are electronic stars Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, and there are pieces by Dame Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave - celebrating her 90th birthday - and Lili Boulanger (the centenary of her terribly early death is this year).

Women conductors? Some. Not a lot. Karina Canellakis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sian Edwards conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's Resound Ensemble in a "relaxed" Prom (explanation on site). Marin Alsop is here to work with a 'Proms Scratch Orchestra' in which amateur musicians can come and join in Shostakovich 5 with the BBC Concert Orchestra. The website kindly advises you to bring your own instrument unless you are a percussionist.

BIG stuff, which works so well in this setting and atmosphere, is laid on almost with the proverbial trowel. Mahler Symphony No.8. Messiaen's Turangalîla (with pianist Angela Hewitt). There's Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, from Glyndebourne; the Strauss Alpine Symphony, BBC Scottish/Volkov; the Brahms German Requiem, conducted by Richard Farnes. The LSO and Rattle do Ravel, with Mrs Rattle, Magdalena Kožena, singing. The LPO and Orozco-Estrada have the Verdi Requiem, notably with rising superstar Lise Davidsen (soprano). John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique presents an all-Berlioz programme, with Joyce DiDonato, among others. The Aurora Orchestra is playing Shostakovich 9 from memory. And there's a singalong for everyone, folksongs from Britain and Ireland - you can sign up to join in from 22 June.

Speaking of anniversaries, Bernstein gets a very thorough bonanza, the highlights including both West Side Story and On the Town, each with no less than the glorious John Wilson and his John Wilson Orchestra. Yes please.

One attractive innovation seems such an obvious idea that you can't help wondering why they haven't done it before: a concert focusing on the BBC Young Musicians of the year and the past, with a splendid cavalcade of winners and finalists from Sheku Kanneh-Mason to Nicholas Daniel and Nicola Benedetti and many more. Jess Gillam also gets to play in the Last Night.

Visiting orchestras: nice to see the National Youth Orchestra present with George Benjamin conducting an eclectic programme, and Proms favourites Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on a return visit. The Berlin Phil is the biggest name, with Kirill Petrenko, and good on them for programming Schmidt's Symphony No.4 in one of their two concerts; and the Boston Symphony is hot on its heels, with Andris Nelsons and, not least, Mahler 3. The World Orchestra for Peace is back too, after a longish break, this time with a conductor less controversial than the last one and extremely fine, namely Donald Runnicles, playing Beethoven 9, Britten and a new piece by Ēriks Ešenvalds. The Bergen Philharmonic is here with Edward Gardner, the Rotterdam Phil with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and the Estonian Festival Orchestra performs Arvo Pärt. The Minnesota Orchestra offers Bernstein and Ives, with conductor Osmo Vänskä. Teodor Currentzis and his Musica Aeterna make their Proms debut in an all-Beethoven programme, which will be - um - interesting. Best of all, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is back, with Iván Fischer, performing Bartók, Enescu and Mahler's Fourth.

More premieres - there are 42 in all: new works by Philip Venables, Rolf Wallin, Per Nørgård and a bunch of pieces commissioned from composers including Uri Caine and Mark-Anthony Turnage to complement Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, courtesy of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.

Late-night Proms are often special highlights and this year we can look forward to Sir András Schiff playing the second book of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. There's a concert exploring the sounds of New York City, one by members of the Buena Vista Social Club, and a visit from the Grammy-winning Senegalese singer Youssou Ndour. More ventures beyond classical include the rising jazz star Jacob Collier and oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros. The National Youth Jazz Orchestra tackles Rhapsody in Blue, with Benjamin Grosvenor at the piano.

But there's nothing pop, nothing I can spot that would raise the hackles and headlines we normally start seeing in the tabloids around now. Perhaps they're worried about people dying of shock upon noticing the name of a pop group in a classical series? As one might say, plus ça change...except it could be that they're now rolling over and accepting that it's not worth the buss and fother.

Among pianists there are no big surprises - Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili, Louis Lortie, Bertrand Chamayou and Paul Lewis are there, and Seong-Jin Cho makes his Proms debut. Among singers, over at Cadogan Hall Dame Sarah Connolly makes her Proms recital debut. And watch out also for the wonderful Wallis Giunta singing some Bernstein. There are also talks to enjoy from writers including Sebastian Faulks, Salley Vickers, Patricia Duncker and many more.

The whole season kicks off with Vaughan Willliams's Towards the Unknown Region, a title which is kind of apposite at the moment. Can the Proms lift us, even briefly, above the morass of lies, corruption, greed, incompetence and stupidity that has driven this country into the mess it's currently facing? I bloody hope so. Two months of wall-to-wall musical relief will be very welcome.

If you can't get there, then as always everything's on the radio and a lot is on TV and computer.

Quick verdict: does what it says on the tin. A good, solid, enjoyable and interesting Proms season that does everything the Proms ought to do, without rocking the boat.

Pay your money and take your choice here.


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Wednesday, November 08, 2017

SILVER BIRCH BBC documentaries just went public

Pop over to the BBC Arts website and experience the story behind Silver Birch, the opera by Roxanna Panufnik and muggins for Garsington Opera!

In the chief film, some very, very clever technology has enabled you to experience in 360 degrees what it was like to be in the performance. There were 180 performers and you, the viewer, become Person 181. The BBC site tells you how to make the most of the tecchy element, but here's the general version...



On the same page you'll find three more short films: The Story of Silver Birch - how the opera came to be; The Veterans - four army veterans performing in an opera for the first time ever tell their stories; and Jay's Story - our military adviser and inspiration, on whom the character of Jack is based.

ENJOY!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Silver Birch roundup

Curtain calls...in 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: https://rhapsodyinwords.com/tag/garsington-opera/

Friday, July 28, 2017

Meet our composer: ROXANNA PANUFNIK SPEAKS OUT


And here she is: our SILVER BIRCH composer, the fabulous Roxanna Panufnik. You've heard a lot from me already about the words and the background, so I asked Rox some questions about how she wrote the music.

JD: How does Silver Birch differ from anything you’ve written before? 
RP: The sheer size and range of vocal forces involved is amazing - such a lot to hold at the front of my brain whilst composing! 
JD: How did you go about connecting with the subject and the story? I know I was way out of my comfort zone at first and wondered if you were too?  
RP: Completely. I first wondered how I could empathise with a young man going to war, but the more Sassoon I read and meeting our inspiration Jay Wheeler helped me hugely to relate to our subject. 

Rehearsing the battle scene...

JD: What have been a) the most challenging, b) the most rewarding things about writing it?  
RP: I’ve never been very hot on unpitched percussion and this piece has required a huge amount of it! But with the help of my ex-drummer brother Jem and Garsginton percussionist Cameron Sinclair I’ve conquered my fear! I think the most rewarding thing would be the wonderfully positive reactions to the piece from those taking part in it - professional and non-professional.

JD: You met most of the singers and worked with them in your shed - how did that affect what you wrote for them to sing?  
RP: For instance with Darren Jeffrey (estranged angry father, Simon) we looked at ways of injecting anger into the timbre of his voice without damaging it. With Sammy Furness (our hero, Jack), again, I needed his guidance with writing high up, at the peak of his range, when his brother Davey gets shot in battle. With the other singers it was a case of making sure that I wrote something that was comfortable enough in their voice that they could emote dramatically without worrying about the technical. 
JD: The vast majority of our performers are adult amateurs, young people and schoolchildren. How difficult is it to write the music you want to write while keeping the technical level appropriate for them?  
RP: It’s not at all difficult - I’m a terrible singer so I went by whether I could sing their parts or not! I also had a lot of support and guidance from Suzi Zumpe, who is responsible for training the non-professionals, and learnt hugely form her as I went along.

JD: I based some of the story on what really happened to Jay Wheeler, and he has been wonderfully helpful to me - I even used some of his words in the libretto, especially the “One chance” chorus and Jack’s “Got to look after my brother". Was it helpful for you to work with him too, and in what way?  
RP: It was fantastically helpful to be able to ring him up and ask him what kind of things he heard in the midst of battle (more shouting and screaming than anything else) and running across the desert at night (his own heartbeat). I was also hugely inspired (and moved) by the photos he showed us of him in Iraq with his soldier friends, the place where they slept and also of him and his brother as little boys.

JD: I’ve got the bug for writing operas now. How about you? Shall we do another? :)  
RP: Yes PLEASE!! 
And now, if you'll excuse us, we're off to our premiere!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A few things you need to know about Silver Birch before tomorrow

Sam Furness as Jack, in Iraq shirt; Bradley Travis as Siegfried in WWI uniform

We had the dress rehearsal yesterday. Today everybody gets a rest before tomorrow's opening night. (UPDATE: EXCEPT FOR ROXANNA PANUFNIK, WHO'S ON RADIO 3'S 'IN TUNE' LIVE THIS AFTERNOON.)

So, in no particular order...

1. Here is a beautiful article by Joanna Moorhead for The Guardian about Sister Jessica Gatty, Siegfried Sassoon's niece and god-daughter. I went to see Sister Jess thanks to her nephew in our chorus and her insights into Sassoon's personality and motivations were more than fascinating. They are not directly referenced in Silver Birch, but have informed both the story and Bradley Travis's portrayal of his spiritual presence at a deep level. Very pleased that Sister Jess's story has come to light too.
"I remember his hat was held together with safety pins,” says Sister Jessica Gatty. “And his movements were rather jerky. His driving was most erratic – if you went out in the car with him, it was perfectly possible to end up in a cornfield.” These are Sister Jessica’s memories of Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet with whom she had an intense friendship in the last decade of his life. She describes their relationship as “spiritual”.
Read the rest here.

2. BBC Arts has been filming us for a documentary that will be posted online on their website, plus some interviews for Facebook Live. Here's the first of the films:




UPDATE, 3.30pm: And here's another film. This time it's me and Roxanna.



3. The word "opera" means "work". Oh yes. If you've never seen an opera company rehearsing, you mightn't realise quite how appropriate that term is. That's partly the idea, of course.

4. Siegfried Sassoon's presence in a contemporary war story not only integrates some of his poetry, but makes the point that the impact of war is as devastating in human terms today as it was a hundred years ago. Jack, our hero, is inspired by Sassoon's poems and turns to his words for guidance.

5. Jay Wheeler, the Iraq war veteran whose story has fed strongly into Jack's, has given Sam Furness his army dog-tags and shirt to wear on stage. He has also lent the youth opera company some of his own army "blueys" (air letters) which they receive in the "Letters from home" chorus. We are very touched that he has embraced the opera with such enthusiasm. He says it has been therapeutic and he'll be with us at the performances.

A number of our performers also have military backgrounds, families or other connections. Here is an interview on the Garsington website with some of them about what Silver Birch means to them.


Roxanna at rehearsal, checking her score

6. A few things that a composer and librettist team need:
• Sympathy
• Empathy
• Chocolate

7. "Never work with children or animals..." This is nonsense. They are wonderful. Here are some thoughts from the Primary company, our youngest performers. 

8. The dog is called Poppy and she belongs to our lead tenor, Sam. This is her stage debut. Someone in our military company remarked that on a desert patrol they would always have a dog, often a black labrador; and another member of the chorus used to be an animal trainer for films and theatre, so she gave Poppy a quick coaching session. Still, resident canine often wags her tail when her owner starts to sing.

9. In the pit, alongside members of Garsington's usual orchestra, are 13 excellent young musicians chosen from local youth orchestras. Each has a professional mentor in the orchestra and plays alongside her/him. Roxanna has written simplified parts especially for them.

10. Our two boy trebles, alternating in the role of Leo, have never sung solo on stage before. They are adorable. Here is an interview with one of them, William Saint, on the Garsington website.

11. The beautiful animation of the moon is by VJ Mischa Ying. Watch out for snippets of Siegfried Sassoon's handwriting and also for what happens when Jack and Chloe say the password. Here is an interview with Mischa on the Garsington website.

12. The Foley team comes from Pinewood Studios and they, too, are working with some students. Look out for their contribution to the battle scene (you can't miss it, really...).

13. PRACTICALITIES for audience members:
• If you want to picnic, come early (the estate opens at 5pm) and eat before the opera. It starts at 7.30pm and there's no interval.
• Dress informal.
• If you're driving please leave PLENTY of time because it's the last weekend of July, it will be busy, and there are road closures in London because of a bicycle race, plus roadworks and speed restrictions on the various motorways. Garsington is very close to exit 5 of the M40.
• If you have sensitive ears, bring ear protectors for the battle scene. It's short, but loud.
• It can get chilly at Garsington Opera, so wrap up warm and bring a brolly.

14. It's totally sold out.

15. (UPDATE, 1.10pm) - Here are some thoughts from various participants in the company, available to read on the Garsington website at the links:
The Primary company 





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.