Proms 2014: Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace (European Première)

Religion is for many the place where peace meets its end, falling at the hands of inharmonious ideologies in the hearts & minds of their most violent advocates. On the one hand, the claim that religion—one or many—is directly to blame for most of the innumerable wars & conflicts that have dogged & continue to dominate civilisation is debatable, yet the claim that religion is often directly associated with their respective protagonists’ motivations is unquestionable. All of which may or may not have been on the mind of Roxanna Panufnik, whose new work Three Paths to Peace received its European première at the Proms a couple of weeks ago, appropriately performed by the World Orchestra for Peace, but embarrassingly directed on this occasion by one of modern conflict’s least strenuous opponents, Valery Gergiev.

There are so many problems brought about by this piece that it’s difficult to know where or how to begin. Panufnik’s approach has been to invoke three world religions, Islam, Christianity & Judaism, chosen due to their common ‘ancestry’ via the figure of Abraham. Panufnik then draws on one musical element from each religion in a supposed aural depiction of the famous episode of Abraham & Isaac. The choice of a story in which a believer is prepared—without question or argument—to execute his own son because he ardently believes his god has ordered him to do so hardly helps Panufnik’s case, but this is essentially irrelevant as not one iota of that story is detectable in her piece. What we have are simple imitations of these religious musical mannerisms, dolled up in Tavener-esque static string backdrops & some fervent solo passages. There’s also an episode featuring drum patterns but the focus is so completely lost during this section that the lack of anything in the foreground renders it moot. The calls to prayer are obvious, the renditions of chant & shofar calls rather less so—but what is nowhere obvious is the point of this entire exercise. Is Panufnik’s aim to remind people of these three faiths what they already know, namely that they share something in common? Is she advocating to non-believers these three faiths as ways (paths) that lead to peace—& if so, why not, say, Buddhism or Hinduism? The message, if there is one, is either so muddled, so simplistic or so downright stupid that it rather beggars belief. Many of humanity’s worst atrocities may have been executed by people spuriously proclaiming to act in the name of these three religions, but many more have been carried out under other religious, political & idealogical banners. Homophobia, misogyny & xenophobia need no religious firmament to arrive at the same vitriolic outlook. And at a risk of bathos, a casual glance at internet fora (surely the best way to interact with internet fora) reveals how even the elevated heights of classical music are by no means immune from entrenched hoards of listeners exhibiting their own fundamentalist beliefs (usually camouflaged as taste mingled with tradition & nostalgia). Believing something—which could include being religious—is one thing, being a fundamentalist is something else, & a terrorist something else again. If Panufnik’s latter-day brand of “can’t we all just get along” flower power has a target audience at all it is surely the last of these, the ones actively turning away from peace. But somehow i doubt whether they’ll be drawn to such a westernised nugget of sensuous, doe-eyed, Sunday school-infused sentimentality as this. Indeed, it may just have the opposite effect.

Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace (European Première)

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