The week in classical: Dalia; Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra and Aurora Proms – review

Just as Garsington’s Dalia sounded its final note, the all-female RAF flypast set off from Brize Norton to spur on the Lionesses at Wembley (nearly swooping right over the opera festival’s Chilterns home on the journey east). In every sense, the timing for last Sunday’s matinee, the last of three performances, was ideal. With music by Roxanna Panufnik and libretto by Jessica Duchen, this new community opera had a pertinence no one could have foreseen when the work was commissioned (following the same team’s success with Silver Birch in 2017).

Women playing “men’s” sport, in this case cricket, is one part of its double-headed subject matter. The other is the global refugee crisis. A Syrian girl, Dalia Khaled, her home and family shattered, is cared for by a family in Britain. Despite their love and support, she encounters prejudice, until discovering a passion for cricket. Her skill at spin bowling boosts her confidence and provides solace in the face of catastrophe. With 180 performers – local High Wycombe schoolchildren, adult amateurs, opera professionals and the Philharmonia Orchestra – Dalia has a capacious reach. The involvement, via video link, of the Al Farah choir of Damascus and the Amwaj choir of Bethlehem and Hebron, whose singing is part of the performance, further extends the work’s ambition. There is also, for good measure, an oud player (Rachel Beckles Willson) and a dog. Garsington’s artistic director, Douglas Boyd, conducts. The streamlined show is directed by Karen Gillingham and designed by Rhiannon Newman Brown and her team.

Few composers know how to handle community opera, with its connotations of worthy and probably not very good. Benjamin Britten proved us wrong with Noye’s Fludde. Jonathan Dove has triumphed, with The Palace in the Sky (2000), and others since. Welsh National Opera’s Migrations, the work of many hands and composer Will Todd, is a current success. Panufnik, with Duchen, also knows how to stir the mix into something sharp, embracing and affecting. I anxiously watched the man next to me blow and sniff into his handkerchief, thinking I should aid him with a spare mask. He was weeping. It takes a particular aptitude, and artistic selflessness, to create something for sundry talents, including very young children who are quickly bored. (In the ladies’ queue, a small girl asked me how I was doing. I said I was doing fine thanks, and was she singing in Dalia? Singing and acting, came her emphatic and enthusiastic reply.)

The plot moves fast. Big, catchy choruses keep the company alert and busy. Professional soloists, each with an aria filling out their life story, enable Panufnik to write without technical boundaries. Kate Royal (foster mother), Jonathan Lemalu (foster father), Ed Lyon (cricketing hero), Andrew Watts (cricketing fogey) gave committed, open-hearted performances. Sixteen-year-old Adrianna Forbes-Dorant, note-perfect, a convincing actor too, starred in the title role (she was Flora in Garsington’s The Turn of the Screw), with Joshey Newynskyj and Erin Field accomplished as the young brother and sister whose family life is disrupted by Dalia’s arrival. The music ranges from minimalist-style brassy propulsion to an improvised lament between the oud player and Aisha (Merit Ariane), Dalia’s mother, who is in a detention centre in Dover. There’s a clever, droll variant on “here we go, here we go, here we go”. Only “it’s coming home” was missing, but this was cricket. Even the MCC was in attendance.

Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall.
The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra and soloists, conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson, at the Royal Albert Hall. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC

Earlier the same day, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra made its UK debut at the Proms, conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson (on BBC Two tomorrow evening). The Royal Albert Hall was adorned with blue-and-yellow flags, but this event was essentially sombre, with music-making to the fore. The players, described as “Ukraine’s leading musicians”, some recent refugees, opened with a work by their fellow countryman, Valentin Silvestrov (b1937), since February this year uprooted to Germany. His Symphony No 7 is a hymn-like single movement, bells, vibraphone, gongs and tuba overlaying and offsetting a moody undulation of strings. Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, with Anna Fedorova as soloist, was lean in comparison. Then soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska raged mightily in the great Abscheulicher from Beethoven’s Fidelio, the horn section excelling in the aria’s exuberant obbligato. The horns also stood out (it could have been where I was sitting), soaring and buoyant, in Brahms’s Symphony No 4. After a hushed account 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 Tuesday’s Prom given by Aurora Orchestra, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Moldovan-Austrian-Swiss violinist, played Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor (1947-8). This anguished work was not performed until 1955 because the Soviet composer had been denounced. The whole piece, its very essence, is pocked and tattooed with Shostakovich’s musical signature, the motif DSCH based on his name. The long third-movement cadenza, in its combination of technical and emotional challenges, forces the soloist to the brink of peril. Kopatchinskaja metaphorically risks life and limb in every performance she gives. This was no exception.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja with Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon at Prom 22. Mark Allan
‘To the brink’: Patricia Kopatchinskaja with Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Mark Allan

Artistic danger is in the DNA of her fellow musicians of Aurora, whose talents include committing repertoire pieces to memory. Their choice for this Prom was the most famous symphony of all, Beethoven’s Fifth. I find the high-wire playing-by-heart process so unnerving that – entirely my failing – I cannot concentrate properly on the music. So I listened to this concert on Radio 3. Nicholas Collon, Aurora’s founder, principal conductor and inspiring genie – in lively dialogue with Radio 3’s Tom Service – gave us a lucid explanation of the work’s germination, and the brilliance of its marquetry. Could hearing a piece played from memory make any difference to the sound? I don’t know, but the players’ excitement and virtuosity blasted across the airwaves like a shot of adrenaline.

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

The Guardian

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