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Tippett's "Child of Our Time" Timely

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: May 22, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

    With English composer Michael Tippett’s oratorio "A Child of Our Time" Saturday night at Music Hall, a goal of the May Festival since Cincinnati’s 2001 race riots, i.e. to foster community understanding and reconciliation, received profound expression.
   There were moments during the 1942 work -- prompted by Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led pogrom against the Jews, but relevant to any age -- when words and music seared the consciousness.
   One came during soprano Cynthia Haymon’s "How can I cherish?" in which a woman laments her inability to feed or comfort her children in a world of poverty and destruction. Haymon, who can float feather-soft high notes, segued tenderly into the spiritual "Steal Away," sung by the May Festival Chorus and tenor Rodrick Dixon, with Haymon’s own bluesy descant.
   Another was "Go Down Moses," a "spiritual of anger" sung with insistence and nobility by the chorus and baritone Lester Lynch.
   Led with deep feeling by May Festival Chorus director Robert Porco, the work was a May Festival premiere.
   An hour long, it is not easy to comprehend without reference to the program notes, especially part III, where hope resides in the willingness of individuals to confront their "dark side." Comprising arias, recitatives and choruses, the work is modeled on Handel’s "Messiah" and the Passions of Bach, with Negro spirituals replacing Bach’s Lutheran chorales. The text, Tippett’s own, is non-specific except in part II, where characters recall Kristallnacht and the event that sparked it (the shooting of a German official by a Jewish boy).
   The music is extremely evocative, from the trumpets’ stark opening to the eerie, high-lying strings of "The boy sings in his prison" (Dixon). "The cold deepens," where the chorus sang of the world’s descent "into icy waters where lies the jewel of great price," i.e. self-discovery, soared in affirmation, capped by mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella’s vibrant "Soul of man."
   Also on the program were Ralph Vaughan Williams’ "Serenade to Music" and "Toward the Unknown Region." The former is a lush, romantic setting of Shakespeare’s ode to music from Act V of "The Merchant of Venice." Spoken by lovers on a starry night, the verses practically sing themselves, but the chorus with Haymon, Pancella, Dixon and Lynch, did the honors beautifully, wreathed by associate concertmaster Rebecca Culnan’s limpid violin solos.
   "Toward the Unknown Region" (from Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass") was shaped thrillingly by Porco. With its implications of what lies beyond death, it began with soft foreboding in the chorus, building to a big climax on "Then we burst forth."
   Sunday evening’s concert at the Cathedral Basilica in Covington was all-Mozart in honor of the 250th anniversary of his birth. Heard were five sacred works, three sung by the May Festival Youth Chorus led by director James Bagwell, two by members of the May Festival Chorus with soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, mezzo Pancella, tenor John Aler and bass Morris Robinson led by music director James Conlon.
   The Youth Chorus, 63 high schoolers accompanied by organist Marilyn Libbin, sang with polish and maturity. Guided skillfully by Bagwell, they were spirited on "Sancta Maria, Mater Dei," K.273, warm and soft-breathed on "Ave verum corpus," K.618, alert and responsive on "Venite populi," K.260.
   The adult chorus (about 60) and soloists performed Mozart’s Vesperae de Dominica, K.321, and Vesperae solennes de confessore, K.339, with members of the Cincinnati Symphony. Chandler-Eteme’s light, creamy soprano was featured in the "Laudate Dominum" of both works. Aler’s silver-lined tenor shone in the ensembles, and Morris’ sonorous bass gave notice that he will be a formidable Osmin in Mozart’s "Abduction from the Seraglio" when the festival resumes at 8 p.m. Friday at Music Hall.
   Conlon guided the chorus nimbly through the six movements of each Vesper setting, which varied from the dramatic, fugal "Laudate pueri" (Psalm 112) to the meltingly beautiful, melodious "Laudate Dominum" (Psalm 116), both from K.339.
(first published in The Cincinnati Post May 22, 2006)