ROXANNA PANUFNIK

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY TALKS TO ONE OF OUR MOST APPROACHABLE COMPOSERS

ROXANNA PANUFNIK'S FAITHFUL JOURNEY


It's unchivalrous to refer to a lady's age, but the composer Roxanna Panufnik is proudly celebrating her 50th birthday this year, already with new CD releases (one recorded by Ex Cathedra) and a world premiere at the Last Night of the Proms. She is also celebrating her new status as a dual-national, having recently been granted Polish citizenship.
This pragmatic move in these uncertain will-we-or-won't-we-Brexit times comes about via the fact that Roxanna's father was Polish. Andrzej Panufnik bravely defected from Poland in the mid 1950s (his escape via Switzerland is the stuff of films), and before settling in London in order to resume his lifelong vocation as a composer, he spent two years as a convention-busting principal conductor of the CBSO.
Roxanna is fiercely proud of her Polish heritage as well as her Roman Catholicism, and her perhaps biggest work to date -- Faithful Journey, a Mass for Poland -- serves as a wonderful symbol of her allegiances.
Co-commissioned by the CBSO and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Faithful Journey received its world premiere in Katowice, Poland on November 9, performed by the PNRSO. Its UK premiere takes place in Birmingham's Symphony Hall on November 21, when soprano Mary Bevan will repeat her solo contribution, this time joined by the CBSO, CBSO Chorus and CBSO Children's Chorus conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla -- returning for the first time after maternity leave -- in a programme which also includes highlights from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.
"2018 could not pass without my marking it in the most significant way I could," says Roxanna. "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 538 tracks of Polish folk music and you will hear my very favourite eight in this piece.
" I've 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."
Amongst this macaronic juxtaposition is a particularly chilling text from the decade 1978 -1988, when stirrings from the Gdansk dockyard led by Lech Walesa provoked an enhanced security clampdown, Krystyna Miłobȩdzka's Pamiętam/ I Remember. "Hope is crushed by the imposition of Martial Law as she 'confesses' to owning a list of metal objects which either restrain or penetrate," says Roxanna.
" I have used unusual metal percussion, involving scaffolding pipes and a heavy metal chain, to create a chilling sound over the lower orchestral instruments imitating the tanks that roamed Poland's streets."

Roxanna tells me about the work's reception in Katowice's huge new concert-hall: "It all went fantastically - got an extended standing ovation! "

And Jakub Ekier,a Polish writer submitted this review to the composer.

"In my opinion, you have succeeded to create an absolutely organic, flawlessly balanced and deeply moving whole from literary and musical elements which are extremely different. A task like this was as original as risky and you have managed it brilliantly!. I admire your feeling for poetry, your sense of integral form and the sincerity of this music!"

Roxanna is particularly moved at this linking-up between Poland and Birmingham.
"When my father was struggling through his early years of political asylum in the UK, Birmingham was especially good to him," she explains, a sentiment she repeated on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week last Monday.

"Conducting the CBSO gave him the stability he needed to continue his composing. I meet so many people on my travels that heard Dad conduct the CBSO - hearing these memories brings him back alive for me and I know he'll be right by my side when I'm with you all in November."

What will he be thinking, looking down upon this?

"He would be so proud and excited for me - not just that I'm working with an orchestra of the highest calibre but that I'm 'coming home' to Birmingham. I am particularly touched that the John Feeney Charitable Trust, who commissioned Dad's Piano Concerto in 1962, are also supporting my oratorio commission - it's a beautiful symmetry that my father would have loved."

And Roxanna ends with a tribute to her father's current successor on the CBSO Principal Conductor podium.
"I'm so incredibly excited to be working with the CBSO and Mirga - it's a dynamite combination and I know that they'll give every ounce - and more - of the emotion and theatricality in Faithful Journey. Can't wait!"

*The CBSO and Choruses are conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla in Roxanna Panufnik's Faithful Journey on November 21 at Symphony Hall (7.30pm) , with the generous help of CBSO Platinum Sponsor Smith and Williamson,. Also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Details on 0121 780 3333.

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