"The world turns on its dark side. It is winter."
I wish I could claim that I was reminded of the opening words of A Child of Our Time as I arrived in Boston via the Fung Wah bus by fits and starts on Saturday afternoon, thanks to an unseasonable, slushy snowstorm. But to be honest, I didn't make the connection between the conditions of my trip and its objective until some hours later, when Michael Steinberg brought it up in the lucid, personable pre-concert lecture he delivered before that evening's Boston Symphony Orchestra concert.
2005 is the centenary of British composer Sir Michael Tippett's birth, an occasion that is going almost completely unobserved in New York City. As a deeply passionate admirer of Tippett's work, I complained about that situation in an article I wrote in March, previewing a performance by British choir The Sixteen that included the "Five Negro Spirituals" from A Child of Our Time. (I'd provide a link to that article, for which I interviewed Tippett boosters including Sixteen conductor Harry Christophers, Sir Colin Davis, Peter Cropper of the Lindsay String Quartet, pianist Steven Osborne and composer Steve Martland, but sadly, it hasn't made it into the Time Out New York online archives just yet. That's also true of the sidebar list of recordings recommended by those artists and myself.)
I'm pretty sure those spirituals were also sung by the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus in a midday concert at Trinity Church during the LSO's recent three-concert run at Lincoln Center. And Osborne will be playing Tippett's Piano Sonata No. 2 on his Zankel Hall debut recital -- along with Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, Debussy's first book of Preludes and three Novelettes by Poulenc -- on December 8. (He was also supposed to have a recording of Tippett's complete sonatas and Piano Concerto on the shelves this year courtesy of the Hyperion label, but begged off for more time to master the works. Let's hope Hyperion is still there when he's ready...)
And that's pretty much it for New York. Rah, rah. Elsewhere, attention has been paid -- and not just in England, where there's been a predictable and welcome gush. Mark Wigglesworth alone conducted the Symphony No. 4 in Cleveland, Detroit, Melbourne, Montreal and Munich. A Child of Our Time has popped up all over the globe. And Tippett's first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, comes to Chicago's Lyric Opera in November -- not coincidentally, my next major musical field trip.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The performance of A Child of Our Time that Sir Colin Davis led on Saturday night at Boston's Symphony Hall was the first time I'd ever heard the work played live, an encounter I'd been hoping for since 1989 -- the year I heard Tippett's fifth and final opera, New Year, in its world-premiere run at Houston Grand Opera, which was where I was bitten with the Tippett bug in the first place. Yes, I know Sir Colin brought Child to the New York Philharmonic in 1999, but at that point I was in the final throes of my rebellious four-year exile from classical music. (Go here for Peter G. Davis's lucid response to the Phil's performances.)
For all of the the idiosyncrasies and challenges that much of Tippett's music presents, A Child of Our Time is surely the composer's greatest hit. I've long cherished recordings by Davis, Previn, Hickox and Tippett himself, the last now available at super-budget price on Naxos. Still, that didn't quite prepare me for the awe inspired by sharing physical space with the piece -- and in particular, this physical space, arguably the finest concert hall in... the United States? North America? The western hemisphere?
Clearly, Sir Colin has full measure of this score's workings -- every plush climax and purposefully bothering dissonance was laid perfectly clear. The orchestra, it might well go without saying during this, the Levine era, played with consummate beauty, precision and commitment. Of the fine quartet of soloists, only Indra Thomas's diction was less than exacting, and with a voice as lovely as hers, you tend to forgive. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Paul Groves and Alastair Miles were as ideal as you could want, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus did itself proud, the altos especially moving to hear (and watch).
The performance was everything I'd hoped it might be, and at least one moment -- the combination of Thomas's vocalise, a luminous chorus and radiant trumpet accents in the line "The trumpet sounds within-a my soul," in "Steal Away," the first of the five spirituals and the climax of Part One -- registered as one of the finest experiences I've had in any concert hall, ever. (One of the least pleasant followed, as I caught Alastair Miles watching a couple in the right balcony clumsily exiting during the hushed string harmonics that open Part Two, rolling his eyes at the sight. Who wouldn't?) Happily, that kind of behavior was at a minimum; most of the notably less-than-capacity audience hung rapt on the performance.
A fair number of seats occupied during Mozart's "Posthorn" Serenade, elegantly played on the first half of the concert, were vacant after the break. I suspect that wouldn't have been the case had more than a few dozen people attended Michael Steinberg's unusually personal pre-concert lecture. Steinberg, a hero of mine for his exemplary program notes, took the opportunity to reveal why A Child of Our Time has long meant so much to him: During Kristallnacht, the horrific event that prodded Tippett into action, Steinberg was himself a 10-year-old boy in Germany. Talking about the experience, he twice mentioned "the sights, sounds and smells..." he yet recalls of the night when he witnessed the burning of the synagogue at the end of his block.
That last word -- smells -- drove home the point of this oratorio in a way that any amount of analytical jargon might well fail to do. Tippett wasn't inspired to create A Child of Our Time by lofty philosophical concerns. He was compelled, driven, by the needless deaths of his fellow human beings. I'm hard pressed to think of any piece more relevant in the here-and-now. The bigger question is, do symphony concert audiences want to think, to react, to be moved in this manner?
I know it made the desired impact on me. All day long, I'd schlepped around a portable CD player and a handful of Tippett discs for the return trip on the 11:30pm Fung Wah bus. But after this concert, I didn't want to hear anything else for a while. Don't you love it when that happens?
One last comment: Saturday night's concert was dedicated, by way of a program insert and a mention by Steinberg, to the memory of Rosa Parks. There's no question whatsoever in my mind that Tippett would have wholeheartedly approved.