Classical Music Magazine (UK): Roxy Music

Classical Music Magazine (UK): Roxy Music

Wednesday, 28 May 2008


It is ten years since Roxanna Panufnik’s Westminster Mass attracted international attention and a rush of new commissions. Now as she turns 40 her year features 15 premieres in five countries and 23 possible commissions over the next two years.

Andrew Stewart reports:
We could all talk, doubtless until long after the cows have bedded down for the night, about the merits of one contemporary compositional style over that of another or an -ism that fi res our passion. The modern music debate has its attractions, not to mention distractions, especially for those composers who prefer talking to composing. Roxanna Panufnik has managed to conduct her artistic business steadily and with growing assurance since the early 1990s without expand- ing the paper mountain of polemics or making extravagant statements about the aesthetic worth of her music.

Panufnik’s compositions stand as eloquent advocates for her work. It’s not that she is indifferent to matters of cultural politics or lacking in strong views. Rather, she’s simply too busy writing new works and seeing them through to first and subsequent performances to make much ado about them. Even by the full standards of past Panufnik performance diaries, 2008 stands out as one of unprecedented quantity and substance. Eleven world premieres are on the cards, including two on the same day, alongside four overseas premieres and a succession of repertoire performances of choral and chamber works. Th is year delivered an inescapable personal milestone on 24 April, when Panufnik celebrated her 40th birthday. The following day, she tells me that her ‘life begins’ anniversary year has coincided by chance with 15 premieres in five countries. ‘Things have gone bananas! There are a possible 23 commissions on the table for the next two years, which is incredibly exciting for a composer.’ Much has happened in the decade since Panufnik’s Westminster Mass attracted international attention and a rush of new commissions. The work, commissioned by John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation to mark Cardinal Hume’s 75th birthday, proved a genuine breakthrough piece and has since made its way around the world and on to disc. Works for Polish National Opera, English National Ballet, Patricia Rozario, the Savannah Music Festival, the Britt en Sinfonia, Philadelphia’s Choral Arts Society, Daniel Hope and Ha-Na Chang have helped raise Panufnik’s profile. She has been particularly prolific as composer of choral and vocal pieces, although her weighty catalogue is not short of works for instrumental ensemble.

Marriage entered Panufnik’s life-story in the years after Westminster Mass entered the world, as did three children, now aged six, four and two. Motherhood, she says, inevitably affected her output both in terms of doing the work and shaping its content. ‘Things were quite quiet for about four or five years, while I was having children. I calculated that in the four years in which I had three babies, I wrote 180 minutes of music.’ Isn’t that more than many childless composers manage to deliver in the same period? ‘Well, I was still writing but slightly from the back seat,’ Panufnik recalls. ‘There’s a time towards the end of pregnancy when you can’t sit up for long periods. And when you have the baby, you’re so completely shagged out there’s not a chance of doing anything other than feeding it before catching the odd hour of sleep. It’s possible aft er four or five months to get back to a more normal routine. The great thing about having children as a composer is that, because you have less time, they really focus the mind on work and what I really want to do. Like any other job, you get childcare where you can and concentrate on what’s at hand.’

The jobs to hand in recent months have included producing new works for The Sixteen, Tasmin Little (the first movement of a new Four Seasons), the Dante Quartet and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Future com- missions include pieces for the London Mozart Players, Han-Na Chang, the Endellion Quartet and a significant work for Patricia Rozario and Chanticleer. Plans for a full-length opera are, if not close to delivery, certainly shaping up nicely. ‘Although I’ve found the right book, I can’t say what it is,’ Panufnik confides. ‘But the author is very enthusiastic about it. Now it’s a case of finding the way to make it happen.’

Despite the association of Panufnik’s music with top-flight artists and ensembles, many of her works for them have been conceived with practical performance considerations in mind. For example, Westminster Mass exists in several incarnations, including the original for choir with two harps, tubular bells and strings and a version for choir and organ. Optional parts and orchestrations of pieces for string quartet underline Panufnik’s desire to see her works performed and performed again.

The strong emotional content and expressive power of her word-setting certainly deliver rich rewards for performers and audiences. ‘My choral works come across best where the performers are able to inject as much theatre and emotion as possible,’ she says, a point that leads neatly into our discussion of Stay with me, the second of a brace of Panufnik premieres set for 3 June. The work, for mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, double-choir and organ, makes its debut at Westminster Cathedral, performed by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers in company with settings of the same text by James MacMillan and Will Todd. Stay with me draws its words from a prayer by Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the Capuchin priest canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

‘Padre Pio’s prayer is an ardent, passionate plea voiced by somebody who is scared by whatever is facing them,’ says Panufnik. Her setting includes a central passage woven from statements of ‘stay with me’ in different languages, Italian, Persian and Spanish among them. The composer recalls first hearing the priest’s supplication at the funeral service of a friend’s father. ‘I was standing beside John Studzinski and we agreed that it had to be set. He came up with the idea of commissioning three composers to set the same text. It’s lovely for me to return to the place where Westminster Mass was premiered. I’ve included a reference in Stay with me to the Amen from the Gloria of the Westminster Mass. It will be a very emotional evening for me.’ Stay with me will be recorded for release on The Sixteen’s Coro label.

Panufnik’s discography contains a healthy share of titles released by major labels and leading independents. It also includes a surprise or two for anyone expecting to find her work filed exclusively under classical. ‘I was pleasantly surprised to see on my most recent PRS royalties statement that one of my pieces has been included on an aerobics album,’ she says. ‘As someone who does aerobics, I’m doubly thrilled! I’m constantly looking for other contexts for my music and to reach people from all walks of life. I don’t write for a particular type of audience, so I think the aerobics album is a tribute to what I’m doing. The fact that anyone in the world can access my music at any time through iTunes is brilliant.’

In reviewing a professional career built over the past 15 years, I ask Panufnik to summarise what makes her tick as a composer. ‘Yes, composing is a profession and I am paid for what I do,’ she replies. ‘But it really is something that I have to do, a vocation. I can’t not do it – it’s so much part of me.’ As the daughter of Sir Andrzej Panufnik, geneticists might argue that music is encoded in her DNA. Did her father, the great Polish-British composer, My father gave me fantastic advice, which applies not just to music but also to every area of life. Always be yourself, he said, as that will shine through ever try to discourage Roxanna from pursuing a musical career? ‘There was never any negative viewpoint from him. He was always extremely encouraging. I always looked at music in a very pragmatic way. For example, I took harp as my second study at the Royal Academy of Music with a view to becoming an orchestral player in order to support my composing. I got tendon trouble in my hands, so that put paid to that idea. You really have to love harp to lug it around and tune 48 strings!’

As far as her creative development is concerned, Panufnik says that the general process of maturing has played its part. She also draws a direct connection between becoming a mother and her growing passion for the music of non-western traditions. The latter strongly informed Abraham, Panufnik’s violin concerto for Daniel Hope, a work from 2004 steeped in Christian, Islamic and Jewish musical influences. ‘That arose from nights laying awake and worrying about what kind of world I’d brought my children into, and how completely helpless I felt about that. What can a composer do? I didn’t come up with the cross-cultural concept because I felt it would bring about world peace! But this was my way of voicing concern for the fact that these three faiths, which probably embody the main part of the conflict being fought for so-called religious reasons, all believe in the same one god. I have a great desire, not just through music but also through other aspects of culture, to encourage inter-faith dialogue.’

Does the composer recognise the danger of diluting strongly identified traditional music by combining aspects of their language in new, if not alien, musical contexts? ‘I think that’s a very negative way of looking at it, if you don’t mind me saying.’ Perhaps so, but it stands as a well-rehearsed analysis of musical multiculturalism and an equally common criticism of stylistic fusion. ‘I think it all depends on how you integrate the material into what you’re doing,’ Panufnik observes. ‘If you take an Islamic chant, the call to prayer for instance, and quote it literally, then that is that. I love the ornamentation and the quarter-tones that are so generic in Islamic chant and music from the Far and Middle East. I have also drawn compound Sufi rhythms into works that are not evidently influenced by Islamic music.’’The results’ , she adds, ‘can be far more enriching than diluting, not least when it comes to delivering rich literary sources for vocal and choral setting.

Panufnik cites the example of The Spirit of the Saints, for harp and upper voices. This short work, premiered last November at St Paul’s Cathedral, takes its emotional temperature from the love poetry of the Sufi mystic Rumi. His words might date from the 1200s, but they need little explanation for a modern audience. ‘He says, “Love swings me round like a cat in a sack”. It’s like, I know that; I’ve been there! I’d love to see the conservatoires exposing their student composers to music, art and literature from other cultures. We have so much to learn from it.’

While Panufnik agrees that her Polish ancestry and personal interest in eastern European culture helped open her ears to musical encounters between west and east, the experience of motherhood proved the most powerful of cross-cultural catalysts. ‘I think my interest in other music really was influenced much more by having children. It’s one of those fundamental life experiences that extends your emotional boundaries and, therefore, your creative boundaries. The first huge and initially very negative example of that for me was losing my father when I was 23. I was very close to him and went through ten months of bereavement before I felt remotely happy again. When I did feel happy, it was a much more profound, more intense happiness than I’d ever experienced. It was as if stretching those sad emotions so far meant that every other emotion was similarly stretched.’

As a self-confessed stubborn Taurean, Roxanna Panufnik was never likely to wear the ‘daughter of’ tag for long. ‘Although the family name and related perceptions of me were an issue at first,’ she recalls, ‘I was getting reviews by my late twenties that remarked on my independence.’ Vocal and choral works, shaded in importance in Andrzej Panufnik’s catalogue by compositions for orchestra and chamber ensemble, offered a channel for Roxanna to find and develop her own compositional voice. It is by every measure a voice that others want to hear. ‘When I was studying composition in the 1980s, there was really only one accepted style. Thank god that’s changed and we now have such huge and exciting diversity. My father gave me fantastic advice, which applies not just to music but also to every area of life. Always be yourself, he said, as that will shine through. I’ve got to where I am now because I’ve always been myself, and receive commissions because people like what they have heard of my work.’ Those last two conditions do not always sit comfortably together. When they do, as Panufnik’s commissions list confirms, creativity is never far behind.

This article appeared in Classical Music Magazine (UK) on 10 May 2008