We of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus are in "Tippett Week" now. Tonight was our "conductor piano" rehearsal with David Robertson and the In Unison Singers, preparing for tomorrow's first joint rehearsal with the orchestra itself, for Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time.
Robertson has evidently been dying to conduct this piece for some time. He worked with the composer for a week in Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, as one was preparing an orchestra for the other to conduct, and he spoke with Tippett about his intentions for the piece. He also heard it performed at a concert attended by the father of Herschel Grynszpan, the boy depicted in the work. So he brings some unique insight and experience to the work.
Spiritually - and you know me, I can't leave spirituality alone - I find the piece not quite satisfying. Tippett brings to it the sensibility of an unbeliever desperately searching for meaning, aping religious forms and language (textually and musically) but backing them up with a vaguely psychoanalytical ideas that, at times, show through like a threadbare fabric. I suppose that's something that deserves to be expressed, and the pain of hearing it is part of appreciating the piece.
Now that Robertson reveals what Tippett said, for example, about the "Chorus of the Self Righteous" being about the British doing nothing to help the people being oppressed by the Nazis, I recognize more of the passionate conviction behind the piece, which one may not expect of a man whom I might be pardoned for calling a "militant pacifist." But I have yet to hear how he is going to put all the pieces together, instruments and voices, the whole continuous sweeping structure of it.
Maybe it's one of those pieces that, under the right baton, can really cut you to the quick. I hope so. The isolated parts I have heard so far seems like only so much striving for a dramatic effect, only sometimes successfully. The one recording I have heard straight-through degenerated into a buzz of tedious sameness enlivened mainly by the five spirituals that support it as pillars a portico. My prayer for this week's performance is that we will improve on that record, and achieve a synthesis of public horror and private hope that may move all who hear it.