Rhinegold Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Roxanna Panufnik

Lucy Thraves


Premieres: September’s new music

8:39, 3rd September 2018

‘I did worry that the beginning of my piece was just too depressing for the last night of the Proms,’ admits Roxanna Panufnik ahead of the premiere of Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light. ‘But then I was talking to Andrew Davis (the conductor for the evening) and he told me not to worry, because it finishes in such an uplifting way.’

The brief asked for ‘a piece that marked the centenary of WW1, but that also looked optimistically to the future’. How to fit a journey from solemnity to sanguinity into a ten-minute piece? Panufnik uses excerpts from two poems, Isaac Rosenberg’s In the Underworld (1913), and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (1923), which become the voices of two different characters, represented by two different choirs.

Panufnik explains: ‘Isaac Rosenberg was an English-Jewish poet who fought in the First World War and was killed very tragically a few months before the war finished. When I read his poem, I thought it sounds like somebody describing what the trenches were like. The reason it’s so spooky is because he actually wrote it before the First World War. It’s about having a broken heart – he’s writing about unrequited love – but it has phrases like ‘bound in terrible darkness, breathing breath impure,’ so it sounds like he’s almost anticipating what the trenches were like.’

By contrast, the excerpts from Gibran’s The Prophet seem to ‘soothe and assuage the fears of the Rosenberg. They have a kind of conversation, the two choirs. They eventually come together as a very big happy ending, but they have very distinct, different atmospheres at first.’

These atmospheres are generated by the music and instrumentation, which reflects not just the texts but the cultures of the poets who wrote them. ‘For the beginning of the Rosenberg I’ve used a traditional Ashkenazy prayer mode – immediately when you hear it you’ll think it sounds Jewish, whether you know much about Jewish music or not. As for the Gibran – he was bought up in Lebanon as a Maronite Catholic, so I’ve used these beautiful Assyrian Maronite tones which sound very much like they’re from the Middle East, with this beautiful ornamentation. Whereas the Rosenberg is quite anguished, the Gibran is very beautiful, calm, and melismatic.

‘The whole piece is the structure of two-part zikr (the name given to devotional acts in Islam in which short phrases or prayers are repeatedly recited). It starts quite slow and muted, but very gradually, over a period of time, it gets higher, faster, lighter and brighter, so it ends in a really exuberant, happy way.’

Such an ending, she hopes, will make audiences feel ‘a little bit optimistic about the future. You know it’s been an insane few years, particularly politically, and most people I know are thoroughly depressed by it all. The last lines of the piece are ‘creature of light and happiness’, and ‘we shall build another tower in the sky’ – I hope that audiences will feel that we can all build another tower in the sky.’


Roxanna Panufnik Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light (BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers, Andrew Davis, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.15pm)

Roxanna Panufnik’s album Celestial Bird is released 7 September and Faithful Journey – A Mass for Poland receives its world premiere on 9 November (Katowice, NOSPR) and UK premiere on 21 November (Birmingham, CBSO).


Slovenian composer Nina Šenk’s new piece, Baca, is inspired by glass. Named after the Latin for bead, or pearl, Šenk explains, ‘Baca refers to glass beads, the oldest in art, dated 3000 years ago. Each one is handmade, unique, a piece of art; fragile and strong at the same time, as is any work of art – or one’s life.’

The process of making glass has informed the structure of the piece. Šenk describes ‘melting together several minerals – in this case musical elements – at very high temperatures (the first half of the piece), forming the object and later cooling down (the second half).’ She continues: ‘the material is introduced and slowly transformed – when a new element appears, it is first a part of a previous structure and becomes dominant later.’

It is not just the physicality of glass that inspired the piece. ‘I first became interested in glass as a material though the “cracking the glass ceiling” phrase.’ As a woman composer, what have been Šenk’s experiences of the glass ceiling? ‘I must say that I am very fortunate – since my student years I have been getting commissions and luckily it hasn’t stopped yet.

‘In Slovenia we have a lot of great female composers and at least some of the venues are commissioning female composers regularly. I could say that it is getting better year by year, especially abroad. But to get the same recognition as a male composer on an academic level – that is much more difficult.’


Nina Šenk Baca (Soloists of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Cadogan Hall, 1pm)

Lisa Illean’s Weather A Rare Blue is inspired by work of pioneering spectralist Gerard Grisey, whose Vortex Temporum is programmed alongside its premiere, as well as that of James Tenney and Morton Feldman. These composers, Illean explains, ‘encourage the listener to be aware of themselves as a perceiving subject, engaged in acts of weighing, discriminating, comprehending and appreciating sound.’

The piece will premiere as part of the Time Unwrapped series at Kings Place, the inspiration for which follows Grisey’s assertion that ‘if architecture magnifies space, music transfigures time.’ Illean continues: ‘Weather a Rare Blue has a form predicated on relations, something perhaps akin to what Maryanne Amacher calls a ‘perceptual geography’ rather than a narrative arc.

‘On the one hand, time is marked out by perceptible, discrete changes, as happens with the changing position of shadow on a wall or sundial. On the other, there is a poetic attempt to play with the relationship between past and present. For example, the first movement resembles a double-exposure (to draw on an analogy from photography) while the final movement has a cyclical, incantatory quality.’

Scored for low flutes, clarinet, piano, strings and recorded sound, Weather a Rare Blue will be performed by Explore Ensemble, whose ‘voyages into the radical frontiers of new music’ will no doubt make them well-suited communicators of this kind of music.


Lisa Illean Weather a Rare Blue (Explore Ensemble, Asier Puga, conductor, Kings Place, London, 7pm)



World premieres unless otherwise stated.


Nina Šenk Baca (Soloists of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Cadogan Hall, 1pm)

Simone Spagnolo Faust, Alberta (Benjamin Bevan, baritone, Pamela Scherman, director, Simone Spagnolo, conductor, Bridewell Theatre, London, 7.30pm; also 5, 7, 8 September)


Roxanna Panufnik Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light (BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers, Andrew Davis, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.15pm)


Harrison Birtwistle Fanfare (Philip Cobb, Gábor Tarkövi, trumpets, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor, Barbican Centre, 7pm)

Robin Walker The Song of Bone on Stone, for solo double bass (I Musicanti, Conway Hall, London, 6.30pm)


Nicolo Isouard Cinderella UK prem (Bampton Opera, Harry Sever, conductor, St John’s Smith Square, London, 7pm)


Augusta Read Thomas Brio European prem (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard, conductor, Glasgow City Halls, 7.30pm; also 23 September, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 3pm)

Geoff Eales Hold Me One More Time; Spirit Flying (Geoff Eales, piano, Andy Findon, flute, 1901 Arts Club, London, 8pm)


Ruta Vitkauskaite New work (COMA London Ensemble, Gregory Rose, conductor, Kings Place, London, 6.30pm)


Hans Zender Cabaret Voltaire Philippe Manoury Blackout UK prems (Salome Kammer, soprano, Hilary Summers, contralto, Philharmonia Orchestra players, Pierre-André Valade, conductor, Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 6pm)

Geoffrey Hanson Death Be Not Proud (London Mozart Players, London Ripieno Society, Geoffrey Simon, conductor, All Saints Church, Durham Road, London, 7.30pm)

Motoki Hirai New work (Motoki Hirai, piano, Cadogan Hall, 7.30pm)

Meridian School Students Cracked Objects (Miles Horner, baritone, Donna Lennard, soprano, Sue Pettitt, clarinet, Ralph Woodward, piano, Royston Methodist Church, Royston, 7.30pm)


Andrea Tarrodi New work (Amatis Trio, LSO St Luke’s, London, 1pm)

Ed Hughes Sinfonia (New Music Players, Nicholas Smith, conductor, The Warehouse, Waterloo, London, 7.30pm)


Lisa Illean New work (London Contemporary Orchestra, Juliet Fraser, LSO St Luke’s, 7pm)


Lisa Illean Weather a Rare Blue (Explore Ensemble, Asier Puga, conductor, Kings Place, London, 7pm)



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