03 February 2012

Preview: Collegiate Chorale in Tippett’s ‘Child of Our Time’

A child of his time: Michael Tippett

February might have been the month I learned about Michael Tippett (1905–98), a composer whose work has never really caught on in America yet is greeted with relative enthusiasm in his native Britain. Treated at first as an eccentric amateur, Tippett by the end of his life was hailed as a national treasure — which is of course precisely what the British like to do with their eccentric amateurs. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, we remained mystified by the guy. Indeed, for a long time it seemed that we were two people divided by the question of whether Tippett’s music is any good, and my opportunities to hear any of it were rare indeed.

Opera Boston had programmed Tippett’s opera, The Midsummer Marriage, for the end of this month, in a new production to star the great Joyce Castle, but the company has shut down — a catastrophic loss for the arts in the Northeast, and not only on Tippett’s account. More happily, New York’s Collegiate Chorale will perform Tippett’s A Child of Our Time tonight at Carnegie Hall — but circumstances require me to be elsewhere, and I’ve got to miss it.

Maestro Bagwell and the Collegiate Chorale.
Photo by Erin Baiano, used with permission.

That’s a shame, because A Child of Our Time is a most interesting piece, and it’s paired on the Collegiate program with Anton Bruckner’s thrilling Te Deum, a Romantic ecstasy from 1886. I heard “bleeding chunks” of both works yesterday during a rehearsal, which whetted my appetite for more, as well as giving me a glimpse of the methods of James Bagwell, the Chorale’s music director.

Inspired by the events that led to Kristallnacht in 1938 but not finished until 1941 and not performed until 1944, A Child of Our Time reflects Tippett’s concerns as World War II began. I’m quite intrigued by his use of African–American spirituals — a form that had little to nothing to do with any of the specific events going on around Tippett while he wrote, and yet, as the composer believed, as eloquent and universal an expression as one can find of a particular kind of strength in hard times.

From Rossini’s Moïse, last December.
Photo by Erin Baiano. Used with permission.

While the writing in A Child of Our Time is angular and anxious, it’s also accessible, with intriguing harmonies and tricky rhythms. Tippett’s orchestration for the brass section struck me as especially compelling, and a good match for Bruckner’s majestic brass passages in the Te Deum — but this may be due to the fact that I was sitting in a balcony directly over the brass section during the rehearsal.

My privileged perch afforded me an extra thrill: my God, it’s overwhelming to be amid so many voices raised in song! I have missed a lot of life, simply because I’m not a musician.

Rehearsals aren’t meant to be reviewed, of course, but it’s kosher to say that I noted with admiration Maestro Bagwell’s command of such vast forces, not only the Chorale but also the American Symphony Orchestra and four top-notch vocal soloists. I’m accustomed to seeing the polished final product from this group, but here I saw the process of polishing. Nothing seemed to get past Bagwell, and I was struck by his emphasis on clear diction from the chorus: in his approach, diction is linked to rhythm, which in turn is linked to energy. Get these things right, and you’ll have quite a performance.

Nicole Cabell

The ever-luscious Nicole Cabell, one of my favorite younger artists, will be soprano soloist, joined by Metropolitan stalwart John Relyea taking the bass part, and regal Marietta Simpson, the alto. A voice new to me, that of tenor Russell Thomas, had me popping up in my seat: his is a vibrant, passionate sound, and I’m eager to hear more of him.

Unfortunately, I won’t hear him or any of these fine artists tonight — but if you’re in New York and you’ve got some time this evening, you ought to try to get to Carnegie.

A Child of Our Time and Te Deum
Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall

3 February, 7 PM
For ticket information, click here
or contact Carnegie Hall.

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