By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
As German bombs rained down on London in the early 1940s, composer Michael Tippett responded with his beautiful, highly personal choral oratorio "A Child of Our Time." Through a generalized retelling of the Kristallnacht, the violent November 1938 pogrom against European Jews, the pacifist British composer at once argues forcefully against oppression and sets forth a possible path out of this darkness.
On Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, the Washington Chorus gave a committed performance of this concert rarity. Music Director Robert Shafer brought out a sense of common purpose among all the performers, paying more attention to the unfolding drama than to the individual parts. The music was certainly well prepared, organized and polished, but what struck you most was the musicians' complete immersion in the score.
This "Child of Our Time" struck a careful balance between modern and more traditional influences. There were several nods to the Washington Chorus's more typical baroque fare as alternating choruses, vocal solos and spoken narratives were delivered with a supplicating ardor straight out of a Bach Passion or Handel oratorio. Rigorous fugues from the orchestra and chorus also made several appearances in each section.
Yet Shafer magnified the spare harmonies and dissonant chords that infuse these traditional forms with a distinctly modern sound. The chorus sang with particular warmth in the American spirituals, which Tippett selected over such typically liturgical texts as the Bible. The clear diction from all the singers -- chorus and soloists alike -- sensitively enriched Tippett's powerful libretto.
Shafer's sweeping approach drew out dark colors from the chorus and orchestra in Part 1, in which Tippett conjures up the foreboding atmosphere and lays out the plight of the oppressed. This brooding atmosphere burst open in Part 2, where Tippett deals with the pain that innocents constantly face.
The music swelled to a grand climax at the powerful "Spiritual of Anger." In the final part, where Tippett suggests self-knowledge and inner spirituality as possible paths away from this chaos, the textures took on a more gentle if still somber quality.
A quartet of fine soloists helped carry the performance along at every stage. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop showed off her dusky yet pleasing midrange, while bass Gordon Hawkins brought his huge yet rounded voice to the narrations. Tenor Gordon Frazure sang well, though his voice noticeably weakened in the higher registers. Soprano Laquita Mitchell tinged her lines with color and radiance, soaring gorgeously above the orchestra in the searching soprano solo of Part 1.
Shafer was always there with a clear beat and gestures, which also helped elicit some superb playing from the orchestra.
A golden, big-breathed rendition of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" opened the concert.