Dahlia; Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra and Aurora Balls – review

Just like Garsington Dahlia sounded its final note, the female RAF flyover departed Brize Norton to spur the Lionesses at Wembley (almost over the Chilterns house of the opera festival on the voyage east). In every way, the timing of last Sunday’s matinee, the last of the three performances, was ideal. With music by Roxanna Panufnik and libretto by Jessica Duchen, this new community opera had a relevance that no one could have foreseen when the work was commissioned (following the success of the same team with silver birch in 2017).

Women playing “male” sports, in this case cricket, is a part of their two-headed affair. The other is the global refugee crisis. A Syrian girl, Dalia Khaled, with her home and family destroyed, is cared for by a family in Britain. Despite her love and support, she encounters prejudice, until she discovers a passion for cricket. Your bowling skill boosts your confidence and provides solace in the face of catastrophe. With 180 artists – local High Wycombe students, adult amateurs, opera professionals and the Philharmonic Orchestra – Dahlia has a wide reach. The participation, via video link, of the Al Farah choir from Damascus and the Amwaj choir from Belém and Hebron, whose singing is part of the performance, further expands the ambition of the work. There’s also, for good measure, an oud player (Rachel Beckles Willson) and a dog. Garsington Artistic Director Douglas Boyd conducts. The simplified show is directed by Karen Gillingham and designed by Rhiannon Newman Brown and her team.

Few composers know how to deal with communal opera, with its connotations of worthy and probably not very good. Benjamin Britten proved us wrong with Noye’s Fludde. Jonathan Dove triumphed, with The Palace in the Sky (2000), and others since. Welsh National Opera migrations, the work of many hands and the composer Will Todd, is a current success. Panufnik, with Duchen, also knows how to turn the mix into something crisp, engaging and moving. I anxiously watched the man next to me blow and sniff at his handkerchief, thinking I should help him with a spare mask. He was crying. It takes particular aptitude and artistic altruism to create something for a variety of talents, including very young children who get bored quickly. (In the ladies line, a little girl asked me how I was. I said I was doing fine, thank you, and she was singing in Dahlia? singing and acting, came his emphatic and enthusiastic reply.)

Patricia Kopatchinskaja metaphorically risks her life and limbs in every performance she gives. This was no exception

The plot moves fast. Big, catchy choruses keep the company alert and busy. Professional soloists, each with an aria filling their life story, allow Panufnik to write without technical limits. Kate Royal (adoptive mother), Jonathan Lemalu (adoptive father), Ed Lyon (cricket hero), Andrew Watts (cricket fluff) gave committed and open-hearted performances. Perfect sixteen-year-old Adrianna Forbes-Dorant, a compelling actress too, starred in the title role (she was Flora in Garsington’s film). around the screw), with Joshey Newynskyj and Erin Field performed as the young brother and sister whose family life is interrupted by the arrival of Dalia. The music ranges from a minimalist-style thrust to an improvised wail between the oud player and Aisha (Merit Ariane), Dalia’s mother, who is in a Dover detention center. There’s a clever and fun variant of “here we go, here we go, here we go”. All that was missing was “is coming home”, but that was cricket. Even the MCC was present.

At the beginning of the same day, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra made its UK debut on the Proms, conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson (on BBC Two tomorrow night). The Royal Albert Hall was adorned with blue and yellow flags, but this event was essentially dark, with music in the foreground. The musicians, described as “the main musicians of Ukraine”, some of them recent refugees, opened with a work by compatriot Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), who moved to Germany since February of this year. His Symphony No. 7 is a unique hymn-like movement, bells, vibraphone, gongs and tuba overlapping and offsetting a melancholy ripple of strings. Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, with Anna Fedorova as a soloist, was thin in comparison. So soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska raged mightily in Beethoven’s great Abscheulicher fidelity, the horn section standing out in the exuberant obbligato of the aria. The horns also stood out (might have been where I was sitting), high and floating, in Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. After a muffled rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem and prolonged applause for these brave musicians, it was all over.

Or was it? In fact, but not in resonance. At the Tuesday dance given by Aurora Orchestra, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Moldovan-Austrian-Swiss violinist, played Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor (1947-8). This harrowing work was not performed until 1955 because the Soviet composer had been denounced. The entire piece, its very essence, is branded and tattooed with Shostakovich’s musical signature, the DSCH motif based on his name. The long cadence of the third movement, in its combination of technical and emotional challenges, brings the soloist to the brink of danger. Kopatchinskaja metaphorically risks her life and limbs in every performance she gives. This was no exception.

Artistic danger lies in the DNA of his fellow musicians from Aurora, whose talents include memorizing repertoire pieces. Their choice for this ball was the most famous symphony of all, Beethoven’s Fifth. I find the process of playing from the heart so unnerving that – entirely my fault – I can’t properly concentrate on the music. Then I heard this concert on Radio 3. Nicholas Collon, founder of Aurora, principal conductor and inspiring genius – in lively dialogue with Tom Service of Radio 3 – gave us a lucid explanation of the work’s germination and the brilliance of its marquetry. Can listening to a piece played from memory make any difference to the sound? I don’t know, but the players’ excitement and virtuosity exploded over the airwaves like a shot of adrenaline.

Star ratings (out of five)
Dalia: A Community Opera
Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra
Aurora Orchestra

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