Portland Symphonic Choir preview: Problem Child

Still relevant today, Michael Tippett’s 20th century classic, ‘A Child of Our Time,’ deserves attention.


Sir Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time doesn’t seem to have lived up to its title. Despite earning acclaim at its 1944 premiere, only a handful of recordings exist, three by Tippett’s champion Sir Colin Davis. It is performed roughly yearly in the US and more often in Britain, most recently on December 17, 2015 in a BBC performance broadcast from the Barbican. When the newly hired Matthew Halls and the Oregon Bach Festival brought A Child of Our Time to Portland’s Trinity Cathedral in 2012, the audience was disappointingly small.

Haven’t ever heard it, let alone heard of it before now?  You’re not alone; it is sparsely performed, an expensive work to mount and an extraordinary challenge to conduct.

Steven Zopfi conducts Portland Symphonic Choir in Michael Tippett's oratorio, 'A Child of Our Time.'

Steven Zopfi conducts Portland Symphonic Choir in Michael Tippett’s oratorio, ‘A Child of Our Time.’

“For the choir it’s a ‘big sing,’ unrelentingly vocal,” explains Portland Symphonic Choir music director Stephen Zopfi. “The choir is challenged throughout. Also, the piece is full of mixed meter, especially in the third movement. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever conducted.”

Given all the challenges, why, then, are Zopfi, PSC and the Portland Sinfonietta bringing Tippett’s choral/vocal/orchestral problem ‘Child’ to the Arlene Schnitzer Hall on Wednesday, May 11? And why should you go hear it?

Dark vs. Light

Let’s turn for a moment to Sir Michael Tippett, a lifelong risk taker, who never followed the pathway his parents laid out for him. He was face forward about himself – sexuality, academic pursuits, social leanings – and he plunged ahead provoking the world into taking notice of what he had to say. Choosing composition as his life’s desire, he enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London, cultivating teachers and mentors, solidifying the essentials of compositional form and syntax and searching for his own compositional voice. He took a while to blossom but at age thirty he produced his first notable work. A Child of Our Time was imagined, changed and completed in the following six years. His other passion in life became pacifism; Tippett, who died in 1998, was for many years a leader in Britain’s Peace Pledge Union.

Tippett_old_ageA Child of Our Time is an oratorio, its form adhering to traditional oratorio style with tonal harmony and some classic fugue voicing. Zopfi compares it to the most famous earlier oratorio. “Handel’s Messiah. Both pieces (oratorios) are in three parts, and both deal with good and evil. The excerpt of Tippet’s ‘Behold the man’ has much in common with Handel’s ‘Behold the Lamb of God,’” he says.

Drama is supplied through recitative and arias, and the voice of the congregation is represented through spirituals, much as Lutheran hymns voiced the congregants in the Bach Passions

“They are modeled on the Hall Johnson Chorale’s recordings of, for example, “Deep River,” and “Go Down Moses,” says Zopfi, “and except for the orchestral accompaniment, are pretty straightforward.”

Like those Bach Passions, Tippett’s oratorio also carries a moral message along with its dramatic story. Even though on the surface, it’s the story of the assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a Jewish youth, it is really a ‘universalized story’, depicting evil vs. good, or in Jungian terms: dark vs. light,” Zopfi says. Tippett was heavily into Jungian philosophy – and therapy — at this time in his life.

The performance also includes a non musical accompaniment, with projected images from our Civil War all the way up to the 21st century, provided by the Portland Jewish Museum. Man’s inhumanity to man, is, unfortunately, still a child of our time.

Top Ten

We now have an idea why the Portland Symphonic Choir is bringing A Child of Our Time to us. Here now are ten top reasons to attend this performance next week:

10. The “gosh, I wish I had gone” and the “when will I ever get another chance” and the “nuts, I missed it” statements will be forever silenced.

9. Buy Local! This is your city’s oldest community choir, now in year 71 of continuous musical offerings.

8. Get a kick out of the fact that this composer was a social activist, a communist, a pacifist, a convicted and jailed conscientious objector and then received three of his nation’s highest civilian honors, including a knighthood.

7.  The Republican Presidential primary election buzz will be much decreased after the game-changing Indiana results. So talk about A Child of Our Time instead.

6. The work runs under 75 minutes, without break. There will still be plenty of time to pop out for a post-Tippett digestif. However….

5. …prior to the 7:30 downbeat several Portland non-profit social justice organizations will be available to provide information on community service opportunities in our community.

4. Understand what Sir Michael Tippett meant when he said, “it seems that the growing violence springing out of divisions of nation, race, religion, status, color, or even just rich and poor is possibly the deepest present threat to the social fabric of all human society.” He spoke those words 35 years after the premiere of A ChildMusic of the Angels: Essays and Sketches of Sir Michael Tippett (1980).

3. The Oregon Jewish Museum, partners in this performance, has selected visual images, which will be projected during the performance, to “bring to life the experience the composer was living,” says Dr. Zopfi.

2. Four stellar soloists, Northwest artists, will bring the vibrant text to life. (link to PSC web site).

1. The “wow, what a work” and the “I’m glad I finally heard it” and the “ah, now I understand” statements will fill your conversation.

It’s a financial risk to present this work. Wish it didn’t have to be so. (Perhaps we need to campaign for government finance reform for financial sustainability in the arts.) Yet artistic organizations must speak to the heart of the local and broader community. Sometimes the dialogue is aimed at the pocketbook. Many conductors, and I have been one of those myself, are tasked with resuscitating a much loved, too-often-performed work which might fill the house and bring the cha-ching. How many artists have performed show tunes, Broadway and excerpted favorites to draw a crowd?

There is nothing wrong with that. It is, in fact, fiscally responsible to do so, usually great fun and, if the public take joy from the journey, all the better. It is part of the “art” of fundraising and it enables arts organization to present the not-yet-loved, not often performed gems of the choral literature, like A Child of Our Timea child which must be given the opportunity to grow into a lasting feature of our culture, like those Bach and Handel works that inspired it.

This performance is a special gift. Must be present to collect.

Portland Symphonic Choir performs Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, Wednesday May 11, 7:30 pm, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. Tickets online.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    Thanx VERY much for promoting this fine work by Sir Michael. I have long been a fan of his works, met him in London years ago, tried to organize a festival of his works in Seattle in the early 90s that Jerry Schwarz squealched & firmly believe that a few of his works will be around for decades to come . . .

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