#GOSilverBirch: An Inspiring and Authentic New People’s Opera

It’s not every day that a year 5 primary school pupil has a chance to perform in the world premiere of a contemporary people’s opera – but that’s exactly what my ten year old daughter Emily did this weekend. On Sunday night I had the joy of seeing her take part in Garsington Opera’s Silver Birch, (social media #GOSilverBirch, @GarsingtonOpera ), at its base on the stunning Getty owned Wormsley Estate.

Photography of the performance was not allowed, but I snapped the stage just before the start of the final performance.

The Silver Birch opera was composed by Roxanna Panufnik with a poignant libretto by Jessica Duchen, who expertly integrated excerpts of poetry into its modern text that were written by World War 1 Poet and hero, Siegfried Sassoon (a frequent guest at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire).

What was also moving was the fact that Siegfried Sassoon’s great-nephew was singing in the opera as part of the community chorus. Through interaction with Stephen Bucknill Jessica was able to also meet other members of Siegfried Sassoon’s family to share living memories of their relative and Great War poet.

“I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”  ~ Siegfried Sassoon

Everything about this project was special. Not least because it was based on certain experiences in 2003 of real life Iraq War veteran, Jay Wheeler (who was in the audience Sunday night), as well as the wartime poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and the participation of so many enthusiastic young people.

Intro into Silver Birch by Garsington Opera (Emily is right at the back of the very last frame):

Silver Birch required the training and co-ordination around 180 people on stage, which in addition to the main characters, comprised of a Primary Company auditioned and selected from 7 local primary schools, a Youth Company of teenagers aged 11 to 18, a small group of dancers, the Foley Company and the Adult and Military Community Company.

Many of the child, teenage and adult participants had never sung or performed in a professional production before Silver Birch.

It’s wonderful that all their names were featured in the programme, and Emily is happy that she is also in the main picture (top far left), on the page where her name appears.

The youngest singer in the opera was the sweet and spirited Maia Greaves, only 8 years old, who co-played the part of Chloe, Jack’s younger sister.

The stand out performances for me were Sam Furness as Jack,  after Mad Jack (nickname of Sassoon from WW1), Bradley Travis who played the ever present ghost of Siegfried Sassoon and Victoria Simmonds, Jack’s mother. I thought the entire cast and crew were just brilliant! I hope Silver Birch is commissioned into mainstream opera repertoire.

Silver Birch Synopsis: 

Anna and Simon plant a silver birch to grow up alongside their children. But later, when Jack and Davey join the army to prove their strength, devastating experiences await the entire family. Spring restores a weather-beaten tree, but can their damaged bonds of love sustain them all through the impact of war?

Interview with Roxanna Panufnik about Silver Birch on BBC Radio 3.

The Humbled Heart by Siegfried Sassoon (sung in Part 1 of Silver Birch)

Go your seeking, soul.

Mine the proven path of time’s foretelling.

Yours accordance with some mysteried whole.

I am but your passion-haunted dwelling.

 

Bring what news you can,

Stranger, loved of body’s humbled heart.

Say one whispered word to mortal man

From that peace whereof he claims you part.

 

Hither-hence, my guest,

Blood and bone befriend, where you abide

Till withdrawn to share some timeless quest.

I am but the brain that dreamed and died.

Even the title of the opera was inspired by a comment from a young boy at Lane End Primary School, who, when asked during a workshop what he would miss most if he were at war, replied that it would be the silver birch his parents’ planted and watched grow up.

Under the auspices of Garsington Opera’s Learning and Participation Programme many individuals of all ages came together for a musical and cultural experience that has changed their lives. My daughter is no exception.

Ruby excited to see her sister perform in Silver Birch.

As a musician and also a passionate speaker about the power of music education, I was keen to get Emily interested in music at a young age. She had piano lessons briefly but didn’t really take to it. She preferred the violin and now the guitar, but it seems her true passion is for singing, and she has a wonderful natural instrument. The only problem was she didn’t believe in it herself – until now.

Performing in Silver Birch seems to have been the catalyst for her confidence to blossom as well as unlocking her creative potential. I have noticed a massive change in her.

I believe her participation in Silver Birch has positively impacted her cognitive abilities, capacity for learning, her emotional and mental wellbeing as well as her social skills and overall self-esteem.  Emily can be quite shy with those she doesn’t know, and being outside her comfort zone has pushed her to higher levels of achievement than she would otherwise have thought possible.

Before the start of the opera Karen Gillingham, the Creative Director of Learning & Participation for Garsington Opera, did a wonderful job of introducing us to key members of the cast and stage crew,  explaining to us (with some fun audience participation), the creative process from inception through rehearsals to the world premiere performance of this compelling, multi-layered opera.

Silver Birch was a truly collaborative effort by many gifted individuals, whose collective efforts produced an emotional and meaningful experience. It was obvious that creativity, talent, love, respect and dignity had been poured into it right from the start, and was woven into every element of the work and its live performance. Silver Birch is a people’s opera on every front.

Douglas Boyd, the conductor and Artistic Director of Garsington Opera, eloquently elucidated in his brief address to the audience how the Silver Birch production had affected not just him, but the whole Garsington company as well as the community participants on a profound level.

His words were completely in alignment with my own ethos about the power of music to transform lives.

Emily auditioned at school in May and rehearsals begin in earnest at the end of June. As she chatted in her animated post performance high, we talked about all the different emotions that she experienced. The times of boredom, how she became physically tired, (the rehearsal schedule was full-on), with no weekend break in the two week run-up to the opening night.

This last week I have been a full-time taxi service. But I don’t mind supporting her in such a worthwhile endeavour! Emily now understands what it means to rehearse when she doesn’t feel like it (a few culinary bribes helped!) along with her lessons in work ethic and commitment to a project.

She certainly felt the euphoria that inevitably accompanies hard work: rehearsing alongside her best friend – culminating in the actual performances themselves, where all the separate companies and the orchestra came together on-stage and were duly rewarded by an appreciative audience. All the bowing and clapping at the end made a big impression on her!

She was standing at the front of the stage singing her heart out in quite a few scenes, and I was able to see her wherever she was on the set. My heart swelled with joy!

Whenever she bursts into song, either in the car or at home, I have noticed how much more powerful and resonant her voice is now. All the singers gave stunning performances. Certain scenes made the hairs on my arms stand on end.

I was so proud of Emily for all she accomplished on her musical journey and and my thanks and gratitude go to Garsington Opera as well as headteacher Miss Mansfield and her colleague Mr Dodd of Millbrook Combined School, without whose support it would not have been possible for Emily to take part in this amazing project.

BBC Arts filmed various aspects of the rehearsals and live performances in conjunction with Pinewood Studios at the Wormsley Estate, which will be broadcast online later this year. I will provide the link in this post when it becomes available.

I can see her love of singing and performance has been ignited, so I hope Silver Birch will be a springboard for future aspirations. Even if it isn’t, it has been worth it for Emily for the experience alone, and I’m sure other proud parents must feel the same way.

Expectant sister and mother in the audience!

Silver Birch certainly seemed to inspire and elevate not only the audience, but all who took part.

After all this excitement Emily can now relax and is  looking forward to our family holiday in Spain, as am I! But she can’t rest for too long – she has her 11+ exam to sit in September…

Happy holidays!

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.” ~ Lao Tzu

A Courageous Experiment that will Make you See Music and Beauty Differently

“Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art.” ~ Oscar Wilde

At 7.51 am on Friday 12th January 2007, an unassuming lone male figure dressed in a long sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap played the most spiritually uplifting violin music there is, on a £3.5 million Stradivarius, to oblivious passing commuters at the L’Enfant Plaza on the Washington Metro.

The subway experiment:

Normally classical music fans, and in particular, violin aficionados pay around $100 to attend a Joshua Bell concert, for the chance to listen to one of the greatest living violinists.

I saw Joshua Bell in a performance of Schubert with Jeremey Denk in Vienna a few years back. It was very special. I got to meet him briefly afterwards, and I cannot think of a more down to earth, approachable and lovely person as he. It also helps that he’s pretty much flawless on the violin too…

Joshua Bell in Vienna

The experiment was thought up by Joshua Bell and Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post journalist, curious to see if someone of Joshua’s fame and reputation would elicit large crowds and a hefty amount of coinage in his case.

The outcome of the 45 minute busking session was shocking – of the 1097 people that passed by Joshua that morning, only 7 people stopped to listen for a minute or longer, and the ones who tended to want to stop most were children.  Joshua had received little over $32 for the entire session.

I’m not sure many other professional violinists would have undertaken a similar experience…

For lesser virtuoso’s that kind of reception would likely have cleaved a severe dent in their ego, but Joshua Bell, I think, was able to look objectively at what happened. It had no bearing on his skill on the violin.

It had everything to do with perception, placement and people’s capacity to enjoy something despite its context and their preconceived ideas.

Buskers, although many are highly talented, are not usually in the same league as a concert soloist. We tend to disregard them unless we like what we hear. No matter their skill level my children always stop for buskers.

It was early in the morning and people were naturally rushing to work so they weren’t really focused on anything else. The dismal results highlight how often we can live in a kind of manic, 21st century stress bubble.

Our schedules are crammed to the hilt; we don’t appear to have a nanosecond to enjoy the finer things in life. But such a blinkered attitude means we miss out on what’s really around us.

“Some of the most thrilling things in life are done on impulse.” ~ Syrie James (The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen)

It’s time to open up our awareness and take a deep, abdominal sniff of the roses – really smell and devour their glorious scent – make it a part of us.  Let that divine aroma mingle in our blood as it pulses around our body and nourishes our cells.

Stop and listen to the music if you can, it’s highly beneficial for human beings. Pause and appreciate a work of art, read an excerpt of a classic text and truly digest what message, what heart-felt passion and skill went into its creation.

One of the best violinists in the world was playing music that speaks to the soul on a Golden Period Stradivarius, and barely anyone could truly appreciate it. This wasn’t just any old music played on a shoddy instrument by an amateur – this was mastery – mastery of composition, of violin construction and musicianship.

It makes you think what else we might miss if our radar isn’t attuned to art, nature, beauty, literature and music, our whatever it is that elevates our soul. The universe is ‘speaking’ to us all the time, but are we listening?

Many opportunities for joy may pass us by if we are in a kind of awareness stupor, only concerned with the banalities of life. To be fair, maybe some people didn’t recognise or know who Joshua Bell is; but surely the heavenly music would have roused them from their cultural cocoons for just a minute?

It’s a sad day when a person’s life is so devoid of feeling or joy that they cannot spare such a short time to enrich it.

Here’s the article that Gene wrote after the experiment in the Washington Post.

The Man with the Violin

The experiment prompted children’s author Kathy Stinson to write a glorious book about it: The Man with the Violin. Kathy put herself in the shoes of one of one of the children who may have passed Joshua that cold wintry morning and wrote it from a young boy’s point of view.

When I discovered this book I had already seen the experiment and knew that my daughters would love it. They do, and so do I, because it reminds me to pay attention to what my children pay attention to, and to live in and enjoy the moment.

It’s beautifully written with a beautiful message and evocative illustrations.

Context

One of the lessons of this enlightening experiment was context. It turns out that time and place matter, that expectation has an impact on our experience and enjoyment. When we have paid a considerable amount of money to sit in a concert hall and hear the amazing acoustics of a hotly billed soloist we are in the right frame of mind to get the most out of that experience.

Spontaneity is not something that the majority of people who passed him seemed to possess. It also demonstrated that people tend not to value something unless they pay for it.

His follow-up performance at Washington Union Station in 2014 was much more successful! It helped that the event was publicised, so people knew in advance what was happening.

Joshua Bell is very eloquent when he talks about the experience and classical music in general:

I love his passion for children to have a musical education and how that impacts on their lives as well as their test scores. Music (of any kind) is not a nice to have, it’s as essential as maths and literature. It’s fundamental to our well-being on a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual level.

So whatever floats your boat, be it music, literature, art, or being in nature, take time to enjoy it and let its beauty infiltrate your life and revitalise your soul.

“No matter how many plans you make or how much in control you are, life is always winging it.” ~ Carol Bryant

One of the Most Powerful Performances I’ve ever Seen… 🎼🎧🎻

“Music says that which cannot be said, but which cannot remain silent.” ~ Victor Hugo

When a composer and a musician are both emotionally and musically in tune, the result can be an unforgettable recording that speaks to your soul. Such heart-felt performances usually manifest in glorious interpretations that create some of the most legendary, memorable, mind-blowing and totally magical moments in musical history.

sibelius-vc-allegro-moderato

A section of the Allegro moderato from my violin score

Such performances give you the sense that the musician really understood what the composer wanted the listeners and audience to feel and experience. As Beethoven, (played to perfection by Gary Oldman) so eruditely stated in the film Immortal Beloved:

“It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.”

I’ll probably post these pairings as and when I become struck by their brilliance. For my first example I feel compelled to share a performance by the late French violin virtuoso, Christian Ferras.

Photograph of Ferras taken on a tour of South Africa in 1965, dedicated to the organiser Hans Adler.

Photograph of Ferras taken on a tour of South Africa, dedicated to the organiser Hans Adler.

I recently learned of his existence (I know right, how can a violinist not have heard of Christian Ferras), and I’ve been completely captivated by his talent and romantic Gallic style. For me, he’s up there with Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh and Perlman. This has been a musical discovery to relish and to cherish.

I was impressed with many of his performances, but the one that stood out the most was his vintage recording of the melancholy Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor. There are many wonderful recordings of this lyrical, challenging and thrilling work, but none have reduced me to rubble in quite the same way as Monsieur Ferras!

My emotional defences were penetrated and disarmed by the honest, visceral and virtuosic nature of this particular mid 1960’s performance, under the baton of the young Indian maestro Zubin Mehta.

I’ll save the superlatives for later, now it’s time to kick back, relax and enjoy their outstanding music making:

You may not agree with my musings after listening and viewing, (not everyone does, as per this review in Gramophone), but to me this sublime rendition is full of beauty, passion and pathos. In the Adagio di molto he has tears streaming down his face. Maybe he was suffering from a broken heart and the music ‘spoke’ to him. It oozed out of his eyes and his bow, his fingers and his soul via his Stradivarius.

There is a mournful purity to his sound that cannot be matched. Sibelius and Ferras is truly a match made in heaven.

A section of the beautiful 2nd movement from my score.

A section of the beautiful 2nd movement from my score.

Perhaps the ‘dark’ melody of the Sibelius violin concerto was what resonated with Ferras’s lugubrious temperament. The Allegro moderato (1st movement) and the allegro, ma non troppo (3rd movement) are exhilarating and electrifying.

You can see that he is deeply connected to the soul of Sibelius and to the music. Everything is there for me; flawless technique infused with fire and emotion that produces such wonderful colours, phrasing and nuances that take me to the stratosphere…

Context

I think it helps to understand why this is such a powerful, timeless performance when you know that Sibelius poured his love of the violin into this now popular and widely performed concerto in the classical violin repertoire.

“Dreamt I was twelve years old and a virtuoso.” ~ Jean Sibelius (diary entry from 1915 aged 50)

Jean Sibelius (8th December 1865 – 20th September 1957)

As a young man Sibelius had dreams of being a violin virtuoso and could play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but his course changed after he failed his audition for the Vienna Philharmonic due to stage nerves. Perhaps that’s why he wrote his only violin concerto, as an expression of that deeply held, but ultimately thwarted dream.

What may have felt like a disaster at the time may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His true gift however, was expressed through his writing of music. He may not have made such an impact on the world had he stuck to performance alone, but his compositions will never fade.

Portrait of Sibelius by Albert Edelfeldt c. 1904

Portrait of Sibelius by Albert Edelfeldt c. 1904

Violinist Dean Wang gives his take on the Sibelius Violin Concerto:

An icy image of nature is a good to have in mind when listening to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, completed in 1903 and revised in 1905. The reason for revision is that the 1904 premiere was largely unsuccessful since the concerto proved too difficult. The 1905 version is considerably less challenging and also perhaps less cluttered.

The concerto starts with soft strings supporting a tranquil and noble solo violin melody. As the music continues, the violin grows more impassioned and suddenly drops from the highest to the lowest registers of the instrument. The violin part grows more and more virtuosic as the orchestra is given an increasingly active role. After a dark second subject in the orchestra, a passionate motif played in parallel sixths in the extreme upper register of the violin, and then a “travelling” theme in the orchestra, the orchestra stops, the exposition (the first part of a traditional sonata form movement) ends, and the solo violin begins an extensive and extremely virtuosic cadenza.

In this sonata-form movement, the cadenza takes on the role of development (the middle section of the sonata form where the composer takes existing musical ideas and transforms them in inventive and interesting ways). The recapitulation (a varied repetition of the exposition) starts even before the cadenza ends, easing us back into the first melody. The movement closes in a brilliant coda with virtuosic violin octaves and inspired counterpoint fusing previously heard themes together.

After the cold intensity of the first movement, the concerto’s second movement provides some degree of relaxation after a melancholic introduction in the winds. We now hear a warm, singing melody in the violin’s lowest register accompanied by horns and bassoons. The largely lyrical movement provides contrasts excellently with the brilliance and relentlessness of the outer two.

The third movement follows the adagio with relentless dance rhythms; some critics note that these “long-short-short-long” rhythms are similar to those found in polonaises, a popular type of dance from Poland. The connection to dance is made even clearer by Sibelius having reportedly described the movement as a “danse macabre” — a dance of death. The dance is combined with intense virtuosic elements in the violin. The violin’s parallel octaves coupled with heavy orchestration bring the dance to a close.

From Wikipedia:

The initial version was noticeably more demanding on the advanced skills of the soloist. It was unknown to the world at large until 1991, when Sibelius’s heirs permitted one live performance and one recording, on the BIS record label; both were played by Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by Osmo Vänskä. The revised version still requires a high level of technical facility on the part of the soloist. The original is somewhat longer than the revised, including themes that did not survive the revision. Certain parts, like the very beginning, most of the third movement, and parts of the second, have not changed at all. The cadenza in the first movement is exactly the same for the violin part. Some of the most striking changes, particularly in the first movement, are in orchestration, with some rhythms played twice as slow.

Christian Ferras was known to have been plagued with lifelong depression, a condition that tragically drove him to commit suicide on  14th September 1982 (aged 49) at the height of his career.

He was one of the pre-eminent violin virtuoso’s of the late 20th century, but his untimely death seems to have curtailed his stardom in a way that never happened with his contemporaries. He just wasn’t around long enough.

Christian Ferras and Yehudi Menuhin were both taught by the Romanian genius George Enescu, and performed the Bach Double Violin Concerto together:

I’m doing my bit to raise awareness of his recordings; such a talent should never be forgotten.

I’d love to hear what you think. Does this performance get inside you like it did me? If not, are there others that grab you in a similar way as the one I have waxed lyrical about between Ferras and Sibelius?

#SundayBlogShare 🎼🎻🎹🎸🎷🎧 Music: An Unsurpassed Social Gift

“All art aspires towards the condition of music.” ~ Walter Pater

Playing a musical instrument is the best workout I know for my brain, as well as for invigorating my whole body. Meditation follows a close second alongside some other pleasurable activities…

The Music Lesson by Manet c. 1868

The Music Lesson by Manet c. 1868

During a practice session I feel totally alive; my mind seems to be at its most creative, and yet clear of life’s ‘junk’. I can be myself when I’m playing my violin; happily ensconced in a ‘flow state’ with no judgment or expectation other than to enjoy my activity.

I may not be on stage in a world-class concert hall, (only in my imagination), in reality I’m in my lounge and completely engaged in a joyful fusion of physical and mental exercise.

The thought of not being able to play inspired the premise for my novel, The Virtuoso.

Music score to accompany The Virtuoso by Tim Johnson

Music score to accompany The Virtuoso by Tim Johnson

While I’m playing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Vivaldi my brain is doing the ultimate multi-tasking, coordinating on an epic scale:

It’s enabling me to read the notes, to perform challenging passages of semi-quaver notes, to react quickly with tricky  incidental notes, trills and possible key changes during the piece, let alone changing position on the fingerboard, deciding what digit goes where, what bowing technique is required, the dynamics of the music and, of course intonation and my unique interpretation based on how the music makes me feel as I play it.

Jeanne Saint Cheron - violinist

Violinist by Jeanne Saint Cheron

Imagine coordinating that many processes in a split second. Brain plasticity is an incredible process. It must be an orchestra of simultaneous sparks, a symphony of synapses in there, lighting up all over the place!

Science has backed me up on that one. How playing an instrument benefits your brain – Anita Collins:

Afterwards I find myself in a special space, my mind is empty yet energised and I just write. Ideas flow. It doesn’t last forever, but I try to make the most of it! Those alpha brain waves are the good guys, they usher in our most creative moments when we’re in a state of relaxed concentration.

The Music Lesson by Caspar Netscher

The Music Lesson by Caspar Netscher

Music really is instrumental in improving brain function and cognitive ability.

You may relate to my joy if you play an instrument. I don’t mean to be unnecessarily sombre, but if music disappeared overnight, for whatever reason, what would become of our species? I don’t think I could live in a world devoid of such a rich, cultural heritage…

A fascinating talk from the late neurologist Oliver Sacks – Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain:

This short video shows Dr. Sacks’s brain activity as he listens to music by Bach, his favourite composer compared with that of Beethoven:

A great excerpt from a talk about the history of music by Dr. Daniel Levitin, who argues against Steven Pinker, asserting that music preceded language:

I wanted to share with you my own verses; poetry which most certainly does not compare to the likes of Keats or Shelley, but which is nonetheless genuinely reflective of my love for music; both playing and listening.

Music Makes Me Feel…

First came the hypnotic rhythm of Beethoven,

Moonlight tones passing through my mother’s womb;

Loving piano gently infiltrates fleshy oven,

Beautiful harmony surrounds the warm, watery tomb

My whole being is receptive, active, listening,

Later in life, it will make my spirit sing.

Woman at the Piano by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Woman at the Piano by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Orchestras fill our home, my education starts,

Lessons begin on the violin; fun but hard,

Before long I am hooked, for joy it imparts,

Bowing, scraping, hand stretching on fingerboard,

The right note eludes me, again and again,

Eventually, fingers know their place more than pain.

Berthe Morisot - The artist's daughterplaying the violin

Berthe Morisot – The artist’s daughter playing the violin

Pulsing air waves elicit ecstasy, and poignant lingering,

Oscillations match to memories from the deep,

Such moving melody, well-spring of suffering,

Black notes on treble or bass clef; ready to leap

From musicians instruments, creating composer’s passions

Hypnotism says Ludwig van, to force same emotions.

The Kreutzer Sonata by Xavier Prinet

The Kreutzer Sonata by Xavier Prinet

Major or minor key, varying dynamics and tempo

Music mirrors every sacred moment of life,

Soft, soothing adagio or a galloping allegro,

Good vibrations comfort me when in strife;

Open your heart to its flowing, healing tune,

And fill your soul with rapture, thrilling croon.

Music - Ancient Greek vase - music lesson

Ancient, divine sounds, evolving over millennia,

Effect is more visceral than art, sculpture, literature.

No mode of communication stirs like an aria;

Universal language communes with our nature,

Eclectic music of mankind, such profound apotheosis,

Ultimate expression of humanity: Quo Vadis?

The Music Lesson by Jan Vermeer

The Music Lesson by Jan Vermeer

Apart from the sound of my mother’s voice, this timeless and peaceful composition by Beethoven that my mum used to play was probably one of the first things I ever heard:

Sound when stretched is music.

Movement when stretched is dance.

Mind when stretched is meditation.

Life when stretched is celebration. ~ Sri Sri Ravishankar