Simon Rattle conducts Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time”

27 Apr 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Brett Dean
    The Last Days of Socrates for bass baritone, choir and orchestra (60 min.)

    Sir John Tomlinson Bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Michael Tippett
    A Child of Our Time, oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra (69 min.)

    Sally Matthews Soprano, Sarah Connolly Contralto, Matthew Polenzani Tenor, Sir John Tomlinson Bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Brett Dean
    Brett Dean: Composing Socrates (14 min.)

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    Simon Halsey on Michael Tippett’s "A Child of Our Time" (16 min.)

From Berliner Philharmoniker musician to internationally renowned composer – that’s Brett Dean’s career in a nutshell. In the process of arranging and improvising, the Australian-born violist discovered the composer in himself. His clarinet concerto Ariel’s Music, chosen for the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers, and the ballet One of a Kind brought him international renown.

Encouraged by their success, Dean decided in 2000 to devote himself principally to composition. Ties to his old orchestra have nonetheless remained intact. Berlin audiences may well remember his orchestral work Komarov’s Fall, which the Philharmoniker commissioned. That makes it all the more gratifying that yet another new work by Brett is given its first performance at this concert.

Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, by contrast, was not commissioned. The English composer felt compelled by a real-life event to write it in protest against dictatorship and racism. In 1938 a 17-year-old boy, Herschel Grynszpan, was provoked by the anti-Semitic treatment of his family to shoot a secretary at the German embassy in Paris. The attack provided the Nazis with a pretext for the pogrom in Germany known as Kristallnacht. Tippett’s musical treatment of the Grynszpan incident follows the oratorio concept of Bach and Handel. Ever since the work brought about his artistic breakthrough in 1944, Tippett has taken his place alongside Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten as one of the leading English composers of the 20th century.

From the Last Days of Socrates to the “Twentieth-Century Blues”

Dean’s The Last Days of Socrates and Tippett’s A Child of Our Time

Sir Michael Tippett was a committed pacifist. He joined the British peace movement in 1934, intensively studied the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment as a conscientious objector in June 1943. In his oratorio A Child of Our Time, which he composed in reaction to the incidents surrounding the Nazi pogrom in November 1938, the composer took a stand against the events of his day and vigorously opposed all forms of violence, oppression and discrimination.

Critical references to political and contemporary events are also found in Brett Dean’s oeuvre, for example, in the orchestral work Ceremonial, Dean’s personal protest against the war in Iraq. In his string quartet Eclipse, the Australian composer responded to the Tampa crisis, which occurred in the Indian Ocean in August 2001 – a conflict that arose as a result of the hard-line stance of the Australian government against the boat people who tried to reach Australian territorial waters and were rescued at sea by the crew of the Norwegian freighter Tampa. Dean’s Pastoral Symphony for chamber orchestra and tape, on the other hand, focuses on the contrast between unspoiled nature and environmental pollution in Queensland – the Australian state in whose capital, Brisbane, the composer was born in 1961.

Brett Dean: The Last Days of Socrates

Dean’s latest work, composed in 2012 for bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra, was commissioned by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. As the title indicates, the three-part composition deals with the ancient philosopher Socrates, who lived during the age of Athenian democracy. Like every Athenian, he took an active interest in political life, spent a great deal of time in the agora and other public places and involved his fellow citizens in discussions during which he critically questioned human thinking and behaviour. In 399 BC Socrates was accused of heresy by his enemies (there was no freedom of expression on religious matters in ancient Greece!) – an accusation with which conservative Athenians had for decades persecuted people who, in their opinion, undermined the traditional social fabric of the city by questioning conventional ways of thinking. The fact that the philosopher was actually sentenced to death by a court of jurors is still a source of controversy today. During the voting procedure, jury members cast one of two different kinds of coins – one with a hole and one without – into a terracotta vessel; Dean uses this sound twice in his score, calling for three tuned terracotta bowls to be played by two of the percussionists.

Graeme William Ellis wrote the libretto for The Last Days of Socrates on the basis of texts from Plato’s dialogues. In addition to the Apology of Socrates, the Australian poet drew primarily on texts in which Plato shares the last phase of the popular teacher’s life with his readers: the Crito and the Phaedo. Ellis established a link between the first recorded legal scandal in human history and the present, however, by incorporating a quote from the contemporary Chinese artist, dissident and human rights activist Ai Weiwei in the second movement: “Liberty is about our rights to question everything.”

The composition begins with a Prelude appealing to the goddess Athena. The movement opens with an introduction based on mysterious veils of sound and pedal points, in which distant solo violins provide surreal, whirring string harmonics. The pivotal second section, Apology, is devoted to Socrates’ defence before the court. In Plato’s account, the philosopher reduces the charges to absurdity, declaring that he was only accused because he pointed out the Athenians’ mistakes and weaknesses, thus angering them. During the third section (Phaedo), in which Dean calls for a small chorus of offstage sopranos, Socrates’ students Crito and Phaedo are present in the prison at the moment when their esteemed teacher drinks the cup of poison. Socrates remains true to the position taken in Plato’s earlier work, Gorgias, that it is better to suffer injustice than to do wrong yourself – he had ruled out escape from the very beginning, since it would violate the law. One last time Socrates emphasizes that only his body will die, whereas his soul is immortal, so he will not depart this life with sorrow or fear. The music is in the piano range throughout; after isolated choral interjections over a string soundscape punctuated with string harmonics, it fades away with an ascending vocalise glissando by the offstage sopranos.

Michael Tippett: A Child of Our Time

The title of Tippett’s oratorio is taken from Ödön von Horváth’s 1938 novel Ein Kind unserer Zeit. The text is by the composer himself, although Tippett had sent T. S. Eliot (whom he referred to as his “spiritual father”) his own draft libretto, which the poet returned to him with the “unexpected advice” that Tippett complete it himself. “The work,” wrote the composer, “began to come together with the sounds of the shot itself – prophetic of the imminent gunfire of the war – and the shattering of glass in the Kristallnacht.” During his work Tippett realized that he had reached the “turning-point in my compositional output, both in terms of technique – I had learnt how to handle an extended dramatic form – and in subject matter: for now at last I had found my true role in singing those twentieth-century blues.”

A Child of Our Time follows the three-part structure of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Tippett also paid tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach, both with musical quotations and by inserting “chorales” – Negro spirituals which, according to the composer, “act as modern chorales, in that we all are moved by them beyond the power of the tunes as mere music, yet the spirituals themselves have turned and twisted Bible language into a modern dialect; the stories they tell of the Bible Jews are used to comfort Negroes in the bitterness of oppression, and I use these Negro spirituals to symbolize the agony of modern Jews in Hitler’s Europe.” At the same time, the oratorio is dedicated to anyone who is “rejected, cast out from the centre of our society onto the fringes: into slums, into concentration camps, into ghettos.” The first part of the work describes the general state of oppression; part II “presents the particular story of a young man’s attempt to seek justice by violence and the catastrophic consequences; while part III considers the moral to be drawn, if any.”

The premiere of A Child of our Time, which took place in London on 19 March 1944, brought the work long-term success which has continued to this day. “It is probably every composer’s dream,” Tippett wrote in his 1991 autobiography Those TwentiethCentury Blues, “that something he or she has written will reach an audience in the world at large. In my case, A Child of Our Time really does seem to have spoken its message in most parts of the globe.”

Harald Hodeige

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Sarah Connolly, born in County Durham in England, studied piano and singing at the Royal College of Music in London. The mezzo-soprano is now a regular guest on leading international stages with a repertoire that includes roles in Monteverdi, Handel, Purcell and Gluck as well as the trouser roles of Mozart, Bellini and Strauss, and in works by Bartók and Britten – for example, as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and La Scala in Milan, as the composer in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in Gluck’s Orfeo and in the title role of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She has also appeared at the festivals in Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, Aldeburgh, Edinburgh, Salzburg and Tanglewood, and at the legendary Last Night of the Proms. The singer has worked with conductors such as Riccardo Chailly, Sir Colin Davis, Daniel Harding, Philippe Herreweghe, Paul McCreesh and Simon Rattle. As a much sought-after interpreter of contemporary music, she has also appeared in premieres of works by Turnage, Harvey and Tavener. For her portrayal of the role of Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito, Sarah Connolly was nominated for the Lawrence Olivier Award. She was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2010, and in 2011, she received the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ “Distinguished Musician Award”. The artist now makes her first appearance in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

Sally Matthews was the winner of the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award in 1999. She studied singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and from 2001 to 2003, she was a member of the Vilar Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, during which time she made her debut in the house as Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff (conductor: Bernard Haitink) in 2001. On this stage, as well as in the leading opera houses and concert halls in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Sydney, etc. she has since appeared with a broad repertoire that ranges from early music to works by Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, Dvořák, Mahler, Stravinsky and Messiaen, to works by contemporary composers. For example, Sally Matthews premiered Two Baudelaire Songs, written for her by the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, together with the Nash Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall in October 2004, and sang the title role in the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich at the end June 2007. After her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in Orff’s Carmina Burana at the end of 2004, Sally Matthews was then also involved in the Carmina performances in the Arena Berlin in mid-May 2006.

Matthew Polenzani, who was born in Evanston Illinois, is one of the most sought-after lyric tenors of his generation, and a regular guest at the world’s most important opera houses and concert halls. In addition to the Mozart roles of Tamino, Don Ottavio and Ferrando, his repertoire includes roles such as Achille (Iphigenia in Aulis), Jaquino (Fidelio), Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor), Almaviva (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Narciso (Il turco in Italia), Alfredo (La traviata), the Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Fenton (Falstaff), David (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and Narraboth (Salome). For many years, the singer has had close ties with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where his appearances this season included Nemorino in Donizetti’s Lelisir damore at the side of Anna Netrebko. Engagements have also taken Matthew Polenzani to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Los Angeles Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Opéra National de Paris, the Vienna State Opera and La Scala in Milan. On the concert stage, the singer has worked with conductors such as Pierre Boulez, James Conlon, Sir Colin Davis, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Muti, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Franz Welser-Möst. He has given recitals in – among others – the Wigmore Hall, the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York. Matthew Polenzani received the Richard Tucker Award in 2004 and the Beverly Sills Artist Award in 2008. This will be his debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

John Tomlinson, born in Lancashire, studied civil engineering at Manchester University before a scholarship took him to the Royal Manchester College of Music. Since the mid-1970s, the singer has gained world renown for his performances of Wagner roles and appeared at the Bayreuth Festival for 18 consecutive years: as Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the Wanderer in Siegfried, as Hagen in Götterdämmerung , as Titurel and Gurnemanz in Parsifal, as King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, as Heinrich in Lohengrin and the title role in The Flying Dutchman. John Tomlinson has also sung in the opera houses in Milan, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin (Deutsche Oper and Staatsoper Unter den Linden), Munich, Vienna and Bilbao, as well as at the festivals in Orange, Aix-en-Provence , Salzburg, Edinburgh and Florence. In addition to the great Wagnerian roles, the singer’s extensive repertoire includes roles in Mozart (Sarastro, Leporello, Commendatore), Strauss (Ochs, Orestes), Pfitzner (Borromeo), Verdi (King Philip, Grand Inquisitor), Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov, Pimen), Schoenberg (Moses) and Debussy (Golaud, Arkel). In concert, he has also worked with international orchestras and renowned conductors. In 1997, John Tomlinson was made a Commander of the British Empire and in 2005 he received a knighthood from the Queen. He has been heard in four concert programmes with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1988, most recently in April 2005 in concert performances of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin is a sought-after partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Founded in 1925, the choir produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. The Rundfunkchor’s most recent appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was at the beginning of this April in concert performances of Mozart’s Zauberflöte, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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