UC forces deliver shattering account of Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time”

Mon Jun 03, 2019 at 11:25 am

By Hannah Edgar

Michael Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time” was performed at Mandel Hall Sunday afternoon

“The world turns on its dark side.”

So begins Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. Catalyzed by his horror at the Kristallnacht pogroms the year before, the English composer set to work on the oratorio in September 1939—his attempt to make sense of a world with “pogroms in the east, lynching in the west.”

The ambitious, rarely performed work was performed Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall with Barbara Schubert leading the University of Chicago’s Symphony Orchestra, USO Chorus, and Motet Choir. But taken together, Sunday’s program asked, more broadly: What are we to do in a world that still seems unable—or unwilling—to turn away from its dark side?

Of course, the program couldn’t provide any semblance of an answer, nor did it seek to. William Grant Still couldn’t answer it with In Memoriam, his 1943 salute to African American soldiers who died for rights they were largely denied at home. Tenor and conductor Adrian Dunn couldn’t answer it in his arrangements of traditional spirituals, dedicated to black men slain by police. And Morton Gould certainly couldn’t answer it in his Spirituals for Orchestra, a formalist suite that largely fails to be anything more than a detached aesthetic exercise.

Even Tippett, in an ambiguous written description of A Child of Our Time, tellingly describes its final section as the one which “considers the moral to be drawn, if any.”

What the program at Mandel Hall could provide—with the exception of the Gould—was empathy, deeply felt. And grief.

For months, Tippett was haunted by the story of Herschel Grynszpan, the Jewish teenager whose assassination of a Nazi official in 1938 was used to justify Kristallnacht. He ultimately crafted a concept for an oratorio based on Grynszpan’s story, but abstracted as a metaphor for oppressed people everywhere. In this vein, Tippett used African-American spirituals to scaffold the entire oratorio, noting that the tradition “presented no expressional barriers anywhere in Europe.”

While it’s easy to see why Tippett’s oratorio was radical in its context, it’s just as easy to see why Tippett’s oratorio is rarely performed today. Tippett might have felt that African-American spirituals could symbolize “universal” oppression, but in the United States, these songs take on a far more fraught mien—one that simply can’t be abstracted from its legacy of slavery. Additionally, after grappling with the ugliest of humankind for nearly an hour, the third section of A Child of Our Time abruptly about-faces to an overly conciliatory, even pat ending.

But the compelling quartet of soloists in this UC performance helped get to the core of Tippett’s oratorio, which in lesser hands may have been subsumed by its clumsy compositional moments and ideological delivery.

Dunn sang as The Boy—the Grynszpan stand-in, pushed to agonizing extremes by poverty and persecution—his voice clarion and charged by a hyper-focused, pinpoint energy. As his lachrymose Mother, soprano Kimberly Eileen Jones approached her role with the requisite dramatic urgency. Mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter, though more mellow-voiced than her colleagues, similarly embodied her lines with fervent expression, especially in her final solos. The centripetal force through it all was baritone Bill McMurray as The Narrator—a steady, resonant, almost bardic presence.

Pooled from a notoriously academics-forward school without a performance degree program, by design, the U. of C. ensembles aren’t at the level of a conservatory ensemble. But a few balance and clarity issues aside, under Schubert’s direction the amateur groups cohered compellingly, bringing a roundly unified interpretation to an often disjunct work.

In Memoriam provided a rousing, if repetitive opener, nicely studded by English hornist Gail Sonkin’s plaintive, singing solos. Spirituals for Orchestra, though the programmatic low point, showcased some of the most shapely string playing of the evening.

Though the Still and Gould works were programmed as complements to A Child of Our Time, Dunn’s contemporary arrangements of “Wade in the Water” (dedicated to Philando Castile, killed during a traffic stop in 2016) and “I Open My Mouth to the Lord” (dedicated to Eric Garner) were far and away the most powerful works on the program. Though each only a few minutes long, their emotional wallop—not to mention the intensity Dunn coaxed out of the U. of C. choirs on the podium—reverberated long after.

The concert’s starkest moment came in “I Open My Mouth to the Lord.” As Dunn noted in a brief address to the audience, the arrangement was an artistic response to the final moments of Garner’s life as he was choked to death by police officers in 2014.

In Dunn’s version, tiered entrances increase in intensity, the choir accelerating frantically. Unlike the Tippett, there are no attempts at reconciliation here; no words exist, it seems, that can possibly suffice. Vocal climaxes suddenly, wrenchingly, cut away—then, silence.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “UC forces deliver shattering account of Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time””

  1. Posted Jun 13, 2019 at 12:55 pm by Lee Walker

    This critique reads like a play by play of each vocal note and its companion instrumental sound. I feel I understand enough about what was experienced hanging on every word picture and as events were put into context.


  2. Posted Aug 05, 2020 at 7:33 am by Patricia SPENCER-BARCLAY

    Having sung Tippet’s work, with the Composer present in Wells Cathedral, and having just listened to the Oratorio by Still this incredibly poignant and perceptive review brought me close to tears.
    Thank you so much

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