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11.5.05

A Child of Our Time?

Other Articles:

Tim Page, 'A Child of Our Time' Indeed (Washington Post, May 4)

Charles T. Downey, Tippett... Tippett Good (Ionarts, May 7)

Daniel Ginsberg, 'A Child of Our Time' With a Story Well Told (Washington Post, May 10)
Dennis Marks, in his program notes to the Washington Chorus's performance of Sir Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time on Mothers' Day, calls the work (and is unlikely to have been the first one to do so) very aptly a "secular act of faith." Ödon von Horvath's Ein Kind unserer Zeit supplied the title and the theme of suffering peoples after war. The impetus to write the work came from the desperate murder of a German diplomat in Paris by Herschel Grynspan and the state-sponsored pogrom on November 11th, 1938—the Reichskristallnacht that took the murder as its excuse.

Its pacifist, anti-tyranny (the irony does not escape us, 60 years later, that pacifism in the face of tyrannies may not be the answer, but it must have been understood by Tippett as well, writing the work during air raids in London's bomb shelters. The music is as "tame" as anything Tippett ever wrote, not the least due to his models, Handel's Messiah and Bach's oratorios. Negro spirituals provide the basis for choruses that weld together the individual parts and turn the work—despite all claims to the secular and agnostic nature of A Child—safely toward the religious side. To a libretto that takes specific events and then universalizes them, the chorus and orchestra create a dystopian sound world that always offers glimmers of hope and optimism.

The four fine soloists were Laquita Mitchell (soprano), Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo), Don Frazure (tenor), and Gordon Hawkins (bass). Though the least distinguished and experienced among her colleagues (both Ms. Bishop and Mr. Hawkins have graced the stages of the MET and Deutsche Oper Berlin), the young Ms. Mitchell was the most persuasive. If nuance and expressiveness were a bit on the short side, one could not miss her voice's glory and potential. The true star, however, was the Washington Chorus. As with the orchestra, the many rehearsals I am certain it took to perform this challenging work showed. Impressive and with vigor, the voices dug into the score under Maestro Robert Shafer's dedicated leadership.

The Washington Chorus ought to be given much credit for tackling this piece in the first place. They are, to my knowledge, the only major arts institution in Washington that has contributed to the Tippett centenary. That it was quite as extraordinary a performance made it a spectacularly successful outing, worthy of the highest praise. If only more people had chosen this admittedly strange Mothers' Day outing on a glorious Sunday: the Kennedy Center's concert hall was only half full, if that.

Texts (necessary, given the generally slack diction among performers) were on display like D.C. traffic announcements, only that this one, on the left side of the stage, didn't announce, "Already 9.846 deaths on American highways this year" but "in the dread terror, they have brought me near death." Come to think of it, perhaps there were more similarities than I thought...

This season being all but over (only a showboat performance of "Murder and Other Operatic Madness" at the Wolf Trap on June 9th will take place within this season), some diligent and exciting programming is shown for next season, when the Washington Chorus has two interesting concerts at the Kennedy Center. They'll do an inevitable Carmina Burana, but they couple this November 9th performance with Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (Time Magazine's "Composition of the Century"). For Palm Sunday 2006 they offer Poulenc's magnificent Gloria, his Motets for a Time of Penitence, and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.

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