Norman Lebrecht: From terror to applause as I make my cathedral debut
The writer was delighted when his novel was adapted into an oratorio. But then came the premiere
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Norman Lebrecht congratulates composer Roxanna Panufnik after the performance in Portsmouth Cathedral. Photo:Peter Langdown
On the evening of Remembrance Sunday, I found myself sitting in the second row of Portsmouth Cathedral, paralysed with terror. This is not my usual pre-concert state.
Unlike many unfortunate musicians, I am immune to performance anxiety. Ask me to talk about Mahler to 1,000 people and I’ll discourse for two hours without turning a hair or a page. Let me loose on Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, and I’ll be inside the orchestra declaiming Sprechgesang before the oboe can sound an A.
Last Sunday, however, was something else. I took the train to the great port on a sombre November day for the world premiere of a work based on my novel, The Song of Names. As I set foot in the cathedral, I was poleaxed by a tempest of anomalies.
The Song of Names, published in 2002 is about two Jewish boys — Martin and Dovidl — who grow up in London during the Blitz. Dovidl is a violinist, whose family is wiped out in Poland. On the day of his concert debut, he disappears. It is an intensely Jewish story.
Two years after the book was published, a composer I had known since she was in her teens asked if she could turn it into a work for chorus and orchestra. I made all sorts of excuses, reluctant to relinquish control of my creation.
But Roxanna Panufnik is nothing if not persistent and, when she obtained a commission from Portsmouth Grammar School and the London Mozart Players to compose a 20-minute oratorio, I let her wear me down over lunch and we got smartly to work.
The making of The Song of Names was one of the happiest collaborations of my life. I asked Rox to avoid anything that sounded like pastiche-Jewish. She raced off to consult Dr Alexander Knapp at the University of London and came back with the El Male Rachamim prayer, recited over Jewish graves.
I countered with a melody that may be the oldest known Jewish tune. Chazan Ezra Misri, who conducts Iraqi High Holy Day services in Maida Vale, had sung me a mode for one of the Aramaic Selichot, dating back more than a millennium.
As I listened, I recognised affinities with meditative nigunim composed by Chasidic rebbes far away and many centuries later. Between us, Rox and I arrived at a musical language that was both richly sourced and altogether original.
'‘Why on premiere night was I frozen with doubt and fear? So why, on premiere night, was I frozen by doubt and fear? Anomalies overwhelmed me. How could I, a practising Jew, write a choral work for a cathedral?''
Writing a libretto flowed easily from these decisions. Matching my words to Rox’s music and feeding the results into the Sibelius computer program that composers use for fast scoring, we heard an approximate sound of what awaited us and agreed that it was not bad, not bad at all.
So why, on premiere night, was I frozen by doubt and fear? Anomalies overwhelmed me. How could I, a practising Jew, write a choral work for a cathedral? Rabbinic ancestors were tugging at my inner ear.
And what of my composer? Roxanna, though maternally Jewish, is Roman Catholic by revelation and Polish by paternity. Had we each managed to be true to ourselves? I had swum far out of my depth, fearful that my faithful account of minority experience was about to be subsumed by the establishment church.
The concert opened with a set of Hebrew songs by Eric Whitacre, with words by his Israeli wife. Then came five Bagatelles by Gerald Finzi, a self-denying Jew from my neck of St John’s Wood who always tried to sound more English than custard.
Then it was The Song of Names. A last glance at my libretto. I had given the tenors a little Jewish joke:
“We need a nigun, like the Besht’s:
A nigun like the goy called Bach.
A Goldberg nigun.”
Let’s see what they make of that.
Nothing prepared me for the shock of hearing my words set to music, or for the ferocious energy that the London Mozart Players, the two choirs, conductor Nicholas Cleobury, and the phenomenal Covent Garden baritone Nigel Cliffe, put into the work.
Every consonant and crotchet was emitted as if it were a matter of life and death. And, when the big tune came into play for the first time, every hair in the cathedral must have stood on end.
Afterwards, I asked the boy trebles which bit they liked best and they mobbed me with recapitulations. Parents came up to tell us their children had talked of little else for weeks. “Can we do it again?” chirped the altos.
Nigel was speechless with emotion. “Such an intense evening,” texted one of the cellists next morning.
More pleasing still was the underlying motivation. James Priory, headmaster of Portsmouth Grammar School (established in 1732), explained that he wanted to broaden the Festival of Remembrance beyond the conventional agenda.
This year, he was using it to explore historic connections between the school, the city and its Jews.
He had commissioned an essay in the concert programme, which revealed that Portsmouth had five times petitioned Parliament in the 19th century to remove “the civil disabilities of the Jews”.
The city elected a Jewish mayor in 1867 and the school produced many Jewish graduates. One, Mike Barnard, played cricket for Hampshire (256 first-class matches) and soccer for Portsmouth FC (116 League games).
James recorded the concert and filmed a conversation between Rox and me for use as teaching materials. Somehow, in the thick of recession, he had raised funds to commission a large-scale work of music around which the school could explore its own history, environment and multiple cultures. Music, he argued, is one of the most effective educational tools (Michael Gove, please note).
He introduced us to a couple who were celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary that night. Walter and Herta Kammerling came to England on the 1938-9 Kindertransport; their families perished in Europe. Their story has become part of the school fabric. The act of remembrance continues. An oratorio is born.
Norman Lebrecht is an award-winning novelist and cultural commentator