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Florida Orchestra, Holocaust Museum collaborate in a stirring A Child of Our Time

Published Nov. 10, 2018

TAMPA — Eighty years ago this weekend, Nazi rioters unleashed a wave of antisemitic violence and rage. Whipped up by the propaganda minister and aided by the Gestapo, they killed scores of citizens, burned hundreds of synagogues, and vandalized or destroyed more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses.

Now the Florida Orchestra and the Florida Holocaust Museum collaborate to remember Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass," and uplift its victims. This weekend's concert series, A Child of Our Time, opened Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. British composer Michael Tippett, a pacifist and conscientious objector, began writing it on Sept. 3, 1939, the day Britain and France declared war on Germany.

The orchestra, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and four guest soloists combined in an arresting rendition of a sweeping work that borrows on Bach's Passions, Handel's Messiah and the great requiems but does not resemble any of his previous work.

The concert opened less than two weeks after a man burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue shouting antisemitic slurs and opening fire, killing 11 worshippers.

"This was something to show that mankind had been working on this all its life," Elizabeth Gelman, the museum's executive director, told the audience. She thanked the orchestra for "a chance to remember the lessons of the Holocaust that we — especially at this moment in time — at our peril will forget."

The concert began with selections from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, part of a broader affirmation with musical and thematic ties. Gershwin composed his only opera after spending five weeks studying the regional Gullah dialect of South Carolina. The 25-minute medley opened with a hat tip to Delta blues musician Jazzbo Brown, featuring an upright saloon piano. Highlights included an ethereal rendition of Summertime by soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme.

Tippett wrote A Child of Our Time thinking of Herschel Grynszpan, 17, whose fatal shooting of a German diplomat served as the ostensible trigger for Kristallnacht. From that jumping off point, the composer widened the lens to Jungian dimensions, reflecting on humanity's capacity for evil.

"We have to go within ourselves to ask the question — not 'How could they do this?' — but, 'Could we do that?' " music director Michael Francis said in a preconcert talk. "This is the point."

The hour-long oratorio breaks down into three major sections, each ending with African-American spirituals. Supertitles allow you to follow any passages you might have missed, which is helpful in a libretto with a lot of rapid speech and a Greek chorus capturing the passions of both persecutors and the persecuted. Its melodies are counterintutive, ranging from an operatic recitative to calamitous heights, full of harsh edges.

The score asks a lot from the brass and lower strings, and they deliver. Tenor Dominic Armstrong and Chandler-Eteme sing roles as Herchel and his mother. But the heavy lifting comes from bass-baritone Kevin Deas, who narrates the action, and mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, whose role stirringly delivers the conscience of humanity.

Tippett's piece is not easy to decode musically and at times feels thrown together, a pastiche of mythological overtones and Jungian allusions with odd vocal leaps and drops which over dozens of segments start to sound the same.

But when those disparate elements come together, it's powerful. The performance hit its stride about halfway through, when a divided chorale is chanting Nazi sentiments and the other half reacts: Curse them! Kill them!/Why?/They infect the state/How?

The pace contracts and expands, segues into another spiritual (Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen), then explodes in the percussion and brass behind Deas in Go Down Moses.

The chorale half-whispers, "Let my people go."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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