Bell Carries Grant Park Musicians Through Downpour

July 26, 2010

Astonishingly, Bell and his forces -- a chorus of 175 or so, full orchestra, and four major vocal soloists -- kept going along. Those who stayed seemed spellbound equally by the alternately powerful and hypnotic work and by the musicians' imperviousness to distraction...

The heavy rainstorm that rushed through Chicago on Friday evening was certainly strangely timed. While warnings that it had appeared quite suddenly after a supremely hot and dry day kept some away from the outdoor concert of the Grant Park Music Festival, a healthy crowd had arrived by 6:30. Then, just as Grant Park Chorus director Christopher Bell was launching Michael Tippet's hourlong oratorio, "A Child of Our Time," the heavens opened and the crowd seemed to vanish almost instantly both from the Millennium Park lawn and two-thirds of the seats in the Pritzker Pavilion.

Astonishingly, Bell and his forces -- a chorus of 175 or so, full orchestra, and four major vocal soloists -- kept going along. Those who stayed seemed spellbound equally by the alternately powerful and hypnotic work and by the musicians' imperviousness to distraction.

I and others I spoke with Friday were glad that we had shared this strange experience of being serenaded in the midst of a weather emergency with a work that tries to combine the story of man's inhumanity to man, the saving grace of love, Jungian psychology, odd declamations and Negro spirituals into some sort of a whole.

Tippett (1905-1988) was both a late bloomer and a long-lived British composer. An eccentric, socially conscious, pacifistic, openly gay man, Tippett somehow also had a force of will and a work ethic that made him a composer even though he never really mastered the elements of the art and never really had a full voice of his own. "A Child of Our Time" was his breakthrough work, begun in 1939 and premiered in 1944.

Inspired by the story of Herschel Grynszpan, the teenage Polish Jewish refugee who shot and killed a German officer in Paris, used by the Nazis as a pretext for 1938's "Kristallnacht" which launched the Holocaust, Tippett tries to weave an abstract version of this story with his own psychological views of light, shadow, and "the other." With an idea of somehow following models of Handel's oratorios and Bach's passions, Tippett found his key by incorporating five negro spirituals as great choral set pieces.

British conductors and programmers love Tippet, and this is one piece of his that somehow works when that love is married to great skill as it was when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed it in 2005 with Andrew Davis and as Bell and his colleagues did here. John Relyea was the stern, dark-voiced bass narrator, tenor Garrett Sorenson the plaintive "Child," mezzo Anita Krause the narrator's female counterpart and Chicago's own soprano Jonita Lattimore the inspirational voice of both the Mother and of all mothers. At work's end, we were wet, but moved, and somehow even comforted.

Andrew Patner, Sun-Times