The Harvard Choruses, Boston Modern Opera Project and Boston’s Children’s Chorus, Saturday night at Sanders Theater under Andrew Clark, lifted every voice to sing of Kristallnacht.
Michael Tippett responded immediately to the specifics of the infamous 1938 pogrom by generalizing—the scapegoat (assassin of a Nazi diplomat in Paris) into a bereaved mother’s son, the most evil perpetrators into something human. In A Child of Our Time he proposed that the coldness of winter, the world’s despair in 1939, was required in order to prepare seeds of goodness for germination in the eventual, hopeful spring. And he was overly optimistic in setting atop his score Eliot’s words that “the darkness [would declare] the glory of light.” It turned out to be a long time coming.
If one were to fault Tippett in hindsight, it would be for conscientious objection and refusal to condemn. In his defense, when he wrote his oratorio, the worst of the Holocaust lay ahead. His three-part Messiah-evoking A Child of Our Time (finished 1942, premiered 1944) overflows with textural and musical allusions to its forebear, not to mention what seems a wind version of the Pastoral Symphony. It even contains a role for an exhorting baritone with a trumpeting refiner’s fire. Tippett asks us as well to hear something of Bach’s Matthew Passion. When the People of the very large chorus sing “Burn Down their houses! Beat in their heads!” we can imagine, “Let Him be Crucifed.” Although spirituals had entered popular and concert culture decades earlier, to burn his themes into our hearts and minds Tippett did something markedly original by using them in place of Bachian chorales. The work nevertheless remains veddy British. With a stretch, Tippett’s prose brings Blake to mind, and his deep response to death echoes the Purcell of “Dido’s Lament.”
This may sound like pastiche—Michael Steinberg points out that “All his life Tippett believed in the power of quotation and allusion, and the possibility of unexpected connections”—but Tippett’s structure works. That is why the oratorio has not lacked for performances well beyond the times that occasioned it.
With authority and commitment, BMOP conductor Andrew Clark took to the role of coordinating, rehearsing, conducting and inspiring 250 singers and 80 or so instrumentalists. What a sound we heard from vocal forces arrayed in five sections: across the back of the Sanders stage stood the Harvard Glee Club filled out by the tenors and baritones from the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. The latter group’s women joined the Radcliffe Choral Society in two groupings in the wings—sopranos left, altos right. This would have made more than enough sound, but a surprise was in store, as a chorus of geezers from the class of ’67 rose from the audience (where they looked very much at home) to add emphatic substance to the spirituals. My spl meter measured 95dBA.
Every word projected with fine enunciation and lined-up consonants; every phrase formed with arc and destination. In the choruses of current students, the women especially made a gorgeous sound that was neither wobbly nor straight, produced rather with satisfying freshness and openness. Plenty of vocal testosterone was to be heard from the men of all ages.
Tippett gives his four soloists much to chew on. Jacquelyn Stucker’s warm soprano had more than enough power to soar over the combined forces, and she deployed it to artistic effect, invariably. Chrystal E. Williams’s mezzo was called upon to deliver some of the most dramatically human moments. As the mother of the scapegoat, she laments the loss of her own son as well as his “dark brother” (the Nazi diplomat) with harrowing complexity and affecting sentiment, even if one strongly disagrees about moral equivalencies. Tenor Dann Coakwell’s dulcet tones were often overmatched in engagement and power, though he did make much of his big solo, as the scapegoat found his dreams “shattered in a ghastly reality.” The stentorius preacher / interlocutor / prophet of bass-baritone Dashon Burton led us across the deep river to the promised campground.
And what a treat it was to have a real orchestra supporting this memorable event, instead of a piano or pickup group. Gil Rose, who was not in evidence, has recruited and secured the loyalty of a dependable and virtuosic contingent that can respond to any conductor in any idiom. Over 30 numbers in the Tippett and four more in the preceding Griot Legacies of Trevor Weston, they did everything Clark asked with nary a clam or slip or sag. While the orchestration did not focus us on individuals, the conductor singled out oboist Laura Pardee Schaefer and flutist Sarah Brady.
On paper, Legacies (commissioned for Boston Landmarks Orchestra in 2014) must have looked like a boffo opener, inasmuch as it too incorporates spirituals and grapples with existential questions and suffering beginning in “Lord, How Come We Here?.” But it is a bit too quick to provide catharsis, albeit a provisional one in “There is a Balm.” Weston’s decision to clothe the songs in an agreeable style suitable for large community choruses and general audiences robbed them of their deepest yearnings. Beginning the short oratorio with a field recording of an 84-year-old primitive might have lent authenticity had it not been amplified to stupefying loudness. Nor did it help that the four soloists seemed uncomfortable in the idiom. Nevertheless, certain moments ravished, such as in the ethereal sonorities of “Run to Jesus” with women of the Harvard choruses interspersed with members of the Boston Children’s Chorus, or a vibes-suffused “I’ve Got Shoes.” Overall, though, Legacies left me both dry-eyed and annoyed at what seemed like pandering—a dignified collegiate chorale self-consciously clapping and swaying indeed. Legacies can certainly stand on its own for a celebratory outdoor revival or gala concert, but too much was asked of it as an opener for the Tippett; it came across almost as quaint as the 1930 play and 1936 movie Green Pastures (which I love).
Only the previous Sunday had I presented spirituals myself. The local priest asked me to come up with a concept for a Palm Sunday concert-meditation, thinking that as a musical Jew I could understand and depict Jesus’s suffering. I too turned to pastiche, melding sections of the Matthew Passion in various transcriptions with spirituals. And it came to pass that rivers of tears streamed generally when baritone and preacher’s son Robert Honeysucker imparted “Deep River” [listen here], in powerfully honeyed tones over two highly expressive octaves. That’s called authenticity.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.