June 14, 2011


Tallinn is Worth a Mass (JESSICA DUCHEN, June 2011, Standpoint)

In a studio at the bottom of a west London garden, one of Britain's most individual and recognisable composers is hard at work. Roxanna Panufnik, now in her forties and a mother of three, manages her schedule with a quiet determination that on the surface scarcely indicates the vibrant inner life and intensity of her art.

This month sees the world premiere of perhaps her most extraordinary task to date: Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life, a cantata incorporating both the Latin Mass and 19 poems in Estonian — a language she doesn't speak. Its first performance on June 30, in Tallinn, celebrates the city's tenure as European Capital of Culture. Talking it through over a well-earned cup of tea, she confirms that it has been "one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced in my professional life." [...]

Panufnik's professional life has often found her up against two perennial issues: first, the fact that her father was Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), the great Polish composer who fled to Britain at the height of the Communist era; and secondly, the question of why women composers are still relatively few and far between. Today, though, it's interesting that both matters seem to be receding in importance at last.

Real equality for women in music is still a long way off, of course, especially for composers and conductors — and Panufnik has never yet had a commission from the Proms, something that's decidedly overdue. But the runaway popularity of the Westminster Mass, which was her "breakthrough" work, written for Westminster Cathedral in 1997, more than proved she could hold her own. She has scarcely had a spare moment since.

Nor does her father cast such a long shadow, though it would be easy for any composer to be inhibited by such a heritage. "I don't think he ever had a direct influence over me musically," Panufnik says. "The only thing I've taken from him is his love of simultaneous major-minor harmonies, and I use that much more excessively than he did. He was very economical with his harmonies. When I was writing Westminster Mass in the Malvern Hills, I was figuring out a chord progression for the Kyrie and suddenly it was as if I heard my father's voice speaking to me very clearly, saying: ‘Roxanna, clean up your harmonies!'" He was primarily a symphonic composer and wrote little for the voice, she adds — "a pity, because the stuff he did write is gorgeous. But because I love words and the voice so much, that's a big feature of what I do."

Narratives are often at the heart of her works. Try her delicious settings of Vikram Seth's fables in Beastly Tales; her Violin Concerto "Abraham", written for Daniel Hope, which incorporates elements of traditional music from the three major monotheistic faiths; or the witty evocations of different types of concertgoer in The Audience, a collaboration with the poet Wendy Cope, commissioned by the Endellion String Quartet for its 30th anniversary and currently touring around the UK.

Posted by at June 14, 2011 5:40 PM

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