A Concert of Our Time: RSNO’s A Child of Our Time Loses None of its Relevance

RSNO and audience at the Usher Hall. Image © Sally Jubb
RSNO and audience at the Usher Hall. Stock image © Sally Jubb

Tippett's 'A Child of Our Time'

From: 20 Aug 2023

Usher Hall
Lothian Road
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Conductor Sir Andrew Davis joins the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to warm, familiar applause from a near-full Usher Hall, to perform Tippett’s 1963 three-movement Concerto for Orchestra: notably the 60th-anniversary performance of a work commissioned by the International Festival, and premiered in this very Hall. For an orchestral piece, the spare number and Davis’ unorthodox positioning of the players were notable. It’s not an easy piece to like, though I’m glad Sir Andrew and the RSNO have let me get to know it a little: the first, jittery movement works its way round the sections of the orchestra, setting one instrument against the other in sparring, argumentative turns, the second a dark and velvety swell of melodic strings, and the third seems a kind of ‘agree to disagree’ ensemble piece, where all sections come together but more in competition than harmony.

Sir Andrew Davis. Image Edinburgh International Festival, © Dario Acosta
Sir Andrew Davis. Image Edinburgh International Festival, © Dario Acosta

Next, after the interval, with a vastly-expanded RSNO, and in the steeply-ranked wooden choir seating behind them, a legion more than a hundred strong of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, directed by Aidan Oliver, to perform the evening’s centrepiece, A Child of Our Time. Front of stage sit soloists Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha (soprano), Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (tenor) and Michael Mofidian (bass).

Often the most successful, fully-realised art is that which combines two distinct languages into a single statement that combines their characteristic elements: Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for instance mixes the argots of Opera and Heavy Rock in a dizzying magnum opus. At the age of thirty-four, English composer Michael Tippett, steeped in the languages of both traditional and modernist contemporary composition, and newly-impressed by the powerful simplicity of African-American spiritual song, began working on combining those languages in an ambitious composition that, he envisaged, would embody the turbulent times the world was witnessing; in particular the Kristallnacht atrocity – days of targeted anti-Jewish violence in Nazi Germany following the assassination in Paris of a German diplomat by a 17-year-old Jewish refugee. ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen…’ was as powerfully relevant as it’s possible to be.

Seventy-nine years after its 1944 premier in blackout London’s Adelphi Theatre, as war continued to flood Europe, one of the enduring qualities of A Child of Our Time is that it has lost none of its relevance today: the International Festival’s Director, Nicola Benedetti, introducing the piece on the EIF website, points out that ‘it epitomises all of the themes and provocations that we’re posing to our audiences and artists this summer.’ As Tom Service continues, it embodies Tippett’s strident belief that the arts must have something to say about what we see around us. It’s telling that the ending points to a question – can humankind heal? – that we’re still attempting to answer. If redemption’s possible (Tippett was an atheist, and this is a part-way secular piece) can it be through music, or is the answer in ourselves? The soloists (Rangwashana and Mofidian especially captivating), in navigating that sad, lamenting libretto that turns from spiritual through desperate to a kind of cathartic landing, don’t quite supply the answers, but play-out the questions with the audience in full engagement.

Another of the qualities of A Child of Our Time is that the influences Tippett assimilated are still recognisable, rather than submerged, – the British choral tradition, the stark, personal, libretto that draws on Tippett’s contemporary T S Eliot, the three-part structure established in J S Bach’s The Passions and Handel’s Messiah, the tenor of The Old Testament; spiritual songs in direct pentatonic melodies playing against modernistic, bewilderingly-detailed chromatic passages. Rounded, sonorous, but never dense, it reaches celestial highs and has a ringing, satisfying aftertaste that’s somehow – even now – hopeful, and of enormous worth.

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