Bell Leads Deep Reading of 'A Child of Our Time'

July 26, 2010

Conductors often have treated the spirituals as abstract meditations on the living drama of the story of Kristallnacht, one of the worst pogroms in history; Bell did not. With strength and sweep...

Michael Tippett's oratorio, "A Child of Our Time," is a rare work that honors the past and gives consolation for the present in equal measure. When heard in an account as committed as the one Christopher Bell led with vocal soloists and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus on Friday night, the score's occasional awkwardness drops away, leaving a sense that the gratifications of high art are still, and always, incomparable.

Not even the intensity of Friday's storm, which won out over the first of the music's three parts, overpowered the reconciliation that was Tippett's aim in writing. Here, in the work that declared his artistic maturity, is the line that guided the composer ever after: "I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole." It was far from the entertainment of a summer music festival.

Tippett modeled "Child" after the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, adopting the structure of George Frederick Handel's "Messiah." But Tippett replaced Bach's Lutheran chorales with American spirituals, and while the language sometimes clashes with the text he wrote, it nonetheless has a rightness that has deepened since the work's premiere in 1944.

Conductors often have treated the spirituals as abstract meditations on the living drama of the story of Kristallnacht, one of the worst pogroms in history; Bell did not. With strength and sweep, he made the spirituals into dramatic crests that at the same time reached "down to the deeper levels of our common humanity," as Tippett had hoped.

Three of the four soloists — soprano Jonita Lattimore, tenor Garrett Sorenson, bass John Relyea — have music that accords well with Bell's approach. They fulfilled their roles with pure tone and emotional conviction. Ardor is less important to the mezzo-soprano, and Anita Krause sang of reason, pity and the spirit of man with contrasting, affecting inwardness.

Andrew Davis presented the work beautifully with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005. A much smaller audience heard it Friday performed with greater soul.

Alan Artner, Chicago Tribune