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An Oratorio for Our Time

April 24, 2007

On the centenary of Sir Michael Tippett's birth two years ago, critical curmudgeon Norman Lebrecht wrote that Tippett was a nonentity of a composer who deserves to be forgotten. But even he made an exception for Tippett's 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time. For most listeners, even if Tippett had written nothing else, A Child of Our Time justifies his existence on our planet. Sunday's performance by the Santa Cruz County Symphony and Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, at the Mello Center in Watsonville, verified that conclusion.
The word oratorio summons up thoughts of Handel's Messiah or J.S. Bach's Passions, and A Child of Our Time evokes them, as well. The work is built up of short recitatives, arias, and choruses in the manner of a Handel oratorio, and is anchored by familiar hymns in the same way Bach used chorales in his Passions. More on those in a moment.

Tippett was already considering writing an oratorio in 1938 when the increasing Nazi persecution of the Jews focused his thoughts and gave him a subject. The tale in the work's central section, of the persecution of a people and the imprisonment of a vengeful boy, is directly based on the events leading up to Kristallnacht, the mass vandalism of Jewish homes and property in Germany in November of that year.

But Tippett did not trap himself into producing merely a timely work. Topical references in his text are few. The story of the boy is cast as a symbolic dichotomy of shadow and light, and framed by large sections carrying a message of uncertainty growing to hope, of winter turning to spring. This made the work seasonably appropriate for an unexpectedly sunny day in April, and as conductor John Larry Granger pointed out, emotionally touching in the wake of last week's sad events.
The Sublimity of the Spiritual
Tippett kept his message nonspecific by choosing five American spirituals as his hymns. He had heard one on the radio and realized that they were applicable far beyond their immediate context. What's most remarkable about A Child of Our Time is how seamlessly Tippett connects the spirituals to the modernistic vocabulary of his original composition. He does this by choosing exactly the right moments for the spirituals to appear, by the transparency and lack of heaviness of his own work, and by the absolutely brilliant scoring of the spirituals. Most instrumental accompaniments devised for such songs sound intrusive and superfluous, but Tippett's settings of Go Down Moses and Nobody Knows the Trouble I See are among the finest moments in the modern choral-orchestral repertoire.

Partly because of the use of spirituals, and partly because of the general application of the work's theme to oppressed people, it's common for black singers to be chosen as soloists. For this performance, the soloists were two blacks and two Latinos. All were fine performers. The bass carries the weight of the story in the central section during his narrative recitatives. Derrick Parker had the power and authority to do this justice. His voice is dark and strong. Unlike many singers with such qualities, he could project only with some strain, but this appropriately conveyed the tension in the music.

Alto Rachelle Perry-Ward had the least commanding voice of the soloists, but she sang with great control and purity of tone. Jimmy Kansau, whose lyrics included the words of the titular boy, is an unusually strong-voiced tenor who showed great sensitivity to the rhythm of the music. And Aimée Puentes, the soprano who had the lines of the boy's mother, also sang effortlessly, her high notes floating with ease.

The orchestra played crisply and with clarity. The violins and winds were notably dry and eerie in their appropriate solo passages, in particular the prison scene. The chorus did quite well for nonprofessionals in a challenging score, keeping some coherence even in complex contrapuntal sections. Their enunciation was fairly clear, and their vigor in the argumentative sections was strong. There were a few weaknesses in exposed soprano entrances, a little unusual as sopranos are most often a chorus' strongest section.

Tippett requests that the spirituals should be played with a slightly swung rhythm. I've never heard a performance of the work that actually did this. The spirituals usually come across more like Bach's chorales, and this was no exception. What did swing, surprisingly but effectively, was the slow habanera of the tenor solo "I have no money for my bread," which Kansau sang feelingly. Granger's conducting brought it all together into a coherent artistic whole. Various pauses and drops in dynamics contributed greatly to the emotional effect. And he achieved perfect sublimity as the piece melted into the opening of the concluding spiritual, Deep River.

After the intermission, before the third and final part, the chorus sang three of the spirituals unaccompanied, under director Cheryl Anderson, as artwork by local high school students inspired by A Child of Our Time was projected onto a screen. The original artwork may be viewed at the Attic Cafe and Gallery in downtown Santa Cruz through April 30.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.