On Saturday 12 September, the grounds of Cumberland Lodge filled with the vibrant sounds and colour of Conference of the Birds, a new song-cycle for singers, instrumentalists and dancers by Danyal Dhondy, presented by the charity Cantata Dramatica.

Tickets sold out in advance, with a waiting list, and by 4.30pm the grounds were full of socially distanced groups enjoying picnics. The show started at 5.30pm, as the sun was starting to set and birds flying back to roost over the Great Park.

The event was organised to help raise funds for our charitable work, while we have lost our main source of income due to ongoing restrictions on larger gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the production

Conference of the Birds is a newly commissioned work, based on the 12th-century Persian poem of the same name, by the Sufi poet Farid ud-din Attar, ‘the Attar of Nishapur’. The music is inspired by Sufi mysticism and the improvisational styles of Indian classical music.

At the start of the poem, a Sufi Master asks the birds around him: ‘Why was Adam driven from the Garden?’ The birds (or, in this case, solo singers) then assemble for a conference to work out the answer, but they each get confused, trapped in their own personalities, and they struggle to see the bigger picture. In the end, parables help to guide them to a more thoughtful way of seeing the world, and they finally all join forces in an ensemble that celebrates the finding of wisdom.

This story closely reflects the Cumberland Lodge model of bringing together people of different ages, backgrounds, for open conversations on pressing issues facing society, with a view to finding ideas and recommendations that promote social progress.

Nick Pitts-Tucker, Chief Executive and founder of Cantata Dramatica, and our Chief Executive Ed Newell, were both interviewed about the show live on BBC Radio Berkshire, while rehearsals were underway during the morning.

The artists had been rehearsing virtually, on Zoom, or in small groups in people’s back gardens, until the day of the performance.

'Appetite for live performance'

After the performance, Ed Newell said: ‘We’re immensely grateful to Cantata Dramatica for putting this on as a fundraiser for Cumberland Lodge, while we’ve lost our main source of income due to Covid. 

‘The concert was a sell-out with a sizeable waiting list, which just shows the appetite for live performance at the moment. It was wonderful to see the grounds full of people in socially distanced groups, enjoying the late-summer sun with their picnics.

‘The performance itself was captivating. Despite rehearsing together for the first time on the day, the singers, instrumentalists and dancers delivered a polished and vibrant performance that really brought the grounds to life and provided a morale-boosting lift for us all.’