Guest review by Phl Ayers
When I was a student in the music school of the University of Wichita in the early sixties, the director of the University Singers and professor of choral music Robert S. Hines edited "The Composer's Point of View." In this book, 20th-century composers of choral music wrote essays about one of their works. Sir Michael Tippett was asked to write on his oratorio "A Child of Our Time."
At that time, I wasn't too interested in that portion of the book, turning my attention to the essays by Jean Langlais, Lukas Foss, Vincent Persichetti (who had visited our campus), and Leo Sowerby. Quite naturally, however, when asked to do this review, I turned to Tippett's essay and was richly rewarded.
I found that Tippett originally wanted to compose an opera or an oratorio on the Irish uprising of 1916, but turned to the incident of a young Jew who murdered a German official, setting off what became Kristallnacht and the ensuing Holocaust. And the interesting fact of Tippett desiring that his mentor T. S. Eliot write the libretto to what eventually became "A Child of Our Time" is described in some detail. The story is fascinating and won't be retold here, but it's enough to say that Eliot suggested that Tippett write the libretto himself. And he did. This fact is never mentioned in the otherwise enlightening concert notes of the performance of this work on Wednesday (May 11) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall by the Portland Symphonic Choir.
Conductor Steven Zopfi introduced the work, both with his notes and commentary before the performance. This emotionally moving work was given an excellent reading by the PSC and four fine soloists, Marlette Buchanan, André Flynn, Carl Halvorson, and Angela Niederloh, accompanied by the Portland Sinfonietta. "This is a difficult work to hear and perform. But it is a necessary one" said Zopfi. I perceived that the audience felt that the difficulty, perhaps in hearing the piece and pondering its profound theme and texts, was well worth the effort.
Tippett followed a tripartite scheme, laid out by Handel's oratorios, especially Messiah: first part prophecy and preparation, second part epic (e.g., Christ's birth onward), and third part meditative. Bach's Passions, in their unitary structure, influenced "Child" as well: narrational recitative, descriptive chorus, contemplative aria, and the special Protestant constituent of the congregational chorale/hymn. So, what emerged in "Child" was: Part I - the general state of affairs in the world today as it affects all individuals, minorities, classes or races that are felt to be outside the ruling conventions. Man at odds with his Shadow (dark side of personality, a la C.G. Jung, reflecting Tippett's years of Jungian analysis); Part II - The "Child of Our Time" appears, enmeshed in the drama of his personal fate and the social forces of our day. The drama of the young man, driven by forces stronger than the good advice of his uncle and aunt; Part III - The significance of this drama and the possible healing that would come from Man's acceptance of his Shadow in relation to his Light. (Taken from Zopfi's notes.)
Throughout, the choir's "wall of sound" was very much in evidence. This is a choir of some 125 singers, not an ensemble of 50; keeping such a force as a unified whole is not easy, but Zopfi always brings it about. The choir could contrast the animated with the meditative, sustaining the drama of the text throughout. An example of this is in section 3, in which the chorus alternates with the alto soloist in "Man has measured the heavens": animated: "Is evil then good? Is reason untrue? / Reason is true to itself"; meditative: "But pity, but pity breaks open the heart. / We are lost"; animated: "We are as seed before the wind / We are carried to a great slaughter."
Drama was nearly always within the music itself. The soloists allowed emotive expression to be contained within the music. There was a minimum of physical gesture, but one could not but notice Angela Niederloh's smile at the conclusion of No. 29, "I would know my shadow and my light," after singing "It is spring." At times, I was reminded of Britten's "War Requiem," in some of the ensembles. I wondered if Britten had been inspired by Tippett, some twenty years after "Child."
Tippett's use of spirituals came about when considering how Bach used chorales in his Passions and in many cantatas. With Bach, they were nearly always congregational hymns, but Tippett chose to use Negro spirituals instead. At times, the previous solo or solo ensembles segue into the spiritual, giving a unity to the expression. Five spirituals are used: "Steal away," "Nobody knows the trouble I see," "Go down Moses," "By and by," and "Deep river." They are often performed by choirs as separate pieces, but heard in the context of the oratorio, they take on a terrific and stunning aspect within the whole.
Photographs on a screen over the stage illustrated the texts. Pictures of Jews being taken to the camps and eventual extermination, of families and children, of a nurse and patient, of American Japanese internees, of dead bodies in the street, of a demonstration in Washington, DC, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of African Americans voting for the first time, of Muslim girls in school, enhanced the power of this oratorio. Eyes, even teary, could not close! The pictures came from the collection of the Oregon Jewish Museum and its Center for Holocaust Education.
A few years ago, the Oregon Bach Festival presented a performance of "Child" at Trinity Cathedral. As I recall, it was a very warm evening in the summer, and I was not as moved by this music as I was Wednesday. Yet, the setting in the packed cathedral seemed more appropriate than a large concert hall filled only part-way in the middle of the week. Another observation overheard on my way out of the hall: "It would have been better on a weekend." The Portland Symphonic Choir is truly a gift to the Portland music community and no doubt has to watch its expenses closely when producing such a large work as this at the Schnitzer.