by BRUCE BROWNE
Some historians say that a straight line can be drawn from the Versailles treaty of 1919 to the rise of Hitler in 1933, to the Nuremberg Laws, and through Kristallnacht, all the way through World War II. Sir Michael Tippett lived in Britain through both World Wars and continued to live, compose and work as an instrument of peace throughout his whole life.
So it should be no surprise that Tippett’s 1944 A Child of Our Time, which Portland Symphonic Choir presented last Wednesday night at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, is not a zippy, happy ditty, although hope makes a bright appearance in the final chords. It is, as PSC Artistic Director Steven Zopfi said in his opening remarks, a social justice piece; social justice can be a difficult process.
Zopfi had his orchestra and choir well prepared for those difficulties; his leadership was masterful from beginning to end. The performance provided a refreshing splash of its time, the 1940s, and a slap in the face, reminding us that the quest for social justice, keen at that time, should be doubled in our time.
Confluence of Influences
Tippett wrote both music and text for his oratorio. This may well be called his coming of age piece: as a pacifist, as an advocate for social justice for all, and as a forward-looking composer. What adjacent events aligned to bring him to that place, at that time, and to this composition?
- World events: the precipitous event of the shooting of a Nazi diplomat by a young boy, Herschel Grynszpan, which ignited the political and social tinderbox that was Germany in 1938;
- Self reflection: Tippett’s recent self-immersion into Jungian philosophy and analysis, clearly displayed in the “light and dark” of the text and music;
- Music in transition: Along with the likes of British mates Benjamin Britten, Peter Warlock and Rebecca Clarke, Tippett was leaving politically correct tonal language behind, offering a bright new sound. America at the same time heard the works of Vincent Persichetti, Samuel Barber, Walter Piston and William Grant Still. In Europe and Russia, composition was in transition as well but was brought to a skidding halt due to a political and warring climate.
- Social justice and pacifism: The composer’s life-long concern with persecution against all oppressed minorities began with his awareness of the horrors of World War I. He describes in his book Those Twentieth Century Blues his turning point of not only identifying with victims of war but knowing that he “must work with others towards ensuring a climate of opinion in which a repetition of such brutalities would never be acceptable.”
Although he admits of influences from Berlioz to Debussy and Stravinsky, Tippett clearly forged his own tonal language, often couched in older forms (fugato, fugue and recitative) like those of Bach and Handel, whom he admired equally. His darkly hued music was a perfect companion for the subject matter, coming as it did in the wake of the Nazi pogroms, beginning with Kristallnacht, in November, 1938. Maybe the rhetoric is not always soaring, but it is trenchant, and timely. The music complements, even flatters such prose.
PSC took a multimedia approach: photos were displayed on a large screen above choir and orchestra, all in black and white – until, like a Spielberg turnabout, the final pictures appeared in color. While the images, curated by the Oregon Jewish Museum, depicted the deteriorating living conditions and specific events, they lacked dramatic insight into the horror of the pogroms and the holocaust.
A Child of Our Time uses the choir and a full orchestra, with large brass section, and four vocal soloists. Standouts among the orchestra were solo violist Angelika Furtwangler and flutists Georgeanne Ries and Sydney Carlson, who were featured in several of the precious interludes in the cantata.
All of the vocal soloists were blessed with rich, gleaming tones carrying well into the hall. Carl Halvorson, tenor, was very effective with his emotive singing portraying the young boy, his voice ringing clearly throughout the tenor range. Angela Niederloh, in one of her most effective portrayals, brought to bear the flagrant colors of both registers of her lovely voice. Ms. Niederloh is a mezzo-soprano, but the part itself is a sort of “British alto” part, requiring projection in the low end of the voice, and just as important, in the higher end. Niederloh was equal to the task and then some.
Marlette Buchanan, playing the part of the plaintive mother, seemed tied to her score and wandered a bit from pitch centers at times. When she arrived at them, however, her high notes were lovely. Andre Flynn brought an appropriately serious demeanor in tone and optics to the role of Narrator, tying all the events together. This important role is one of the least tonal (except for the impressive rendering of the solo line in “Go down Moses”), having little melodic lifeline, and Mr. Flynn and Mr. Tippett had occasional differences of opinion.
Schnitzer Hall is clearly a high-end-friendly venue, and does nothing to project low bass parts from the choir. Is there any venue in town that’s a friend of choral basses?
So while soprano alto, tenor and baritone could be heard well, not so the low basses. The sopranos, for their part, spun a couple of high passages that were lovely velvet. Tenors were clear without being stentorian. Altos were strikingly colorful.
On the whole: a well worthwhile 75 minutes for all of us. Thanks to Portland Symphonic Choir on three counts: daring to do such a piece, which is not well known or often recorded; taking the time to build in the necessary qualities of expressive singing; and not least, evincing an excellent total performance. This was a child of both Tippett’s time, and of ours.
Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.
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