In this year when we mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, a military disaster burned into the national consciousness of New Zealand, the Auckland Arts Festival and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra elected to present Sir Michael Tippett's anti-war oratorio A Child Of Our Time. This immensely powerful work was written in response to the murder of a German official in France by a desperate young Jewish man, an event that acted as a catalyst for the pogroms of Kristallnacht, a night of death and destruction for Germany's Jews. Composed between 1939 and 1941, the work was finally first presented after Tippett's release from jail for conscientious objection to the Second World War. It was written to his own libretto at the suggestion of T.S. Eliot.

Indra Thomas © Indra Thomas | Askonas Holt
Indra Thomas
© Indra Thomas | Askonas Holt

Musically, we find the influences of Handel's Messiah in its three-part structure and Bach's Passions in its composition of recitative and commentary arias but it takes the unusual step of featuring African-American spirituals rather than chorales. Not bound by Nazism or the Second World War in particular, Tippett's work goes beyond to tackle themes of oppression in general and is aided in this by the inclusion of the spirituals, creating a more universal view than his own writing and the Europe-focused narrative could. The first two parts have a most dark, oppressive atmosphere, though this is superbly balanced by the redemptive, optimistic ending, epitomised by the glorious anti-slavery paean "Deep River". Throughout the work, Tippett's genuine emotional strength shines through.

A large burden of this work falls on the choir and thankfully we were treated to a highly committed performance from the combined choral forces, extremely competent through Tippett's rather spiky counterpoint, though on occasions ensemble was a little sketchy in some of the quicker passages. They were at their best in their movingly felt accounts of the spirituals, particularly a powerful "Go down, Moses", with a full, rich choral sound echoing through the confines of the Auckland Town Hall. This was contrasted well with the many quiet moments, where they managed the ghostliest of pianissimi without losing body of sound. Even the quietest of entries had the choir perfectly poised – very impressive singing indeed. The final moments, with soloists and chorus singing in tandem, were spine-tingling.

Speaking of the soloists, I was truly impressed by the clear diction of all four; even without the supertitles one would have had little difficulty understanding them. The first to make our acquaintance was Victoria Simmonds, vibrant and expressive in her aria “Man has measured the heavens”. Tenor Nicky Spence was always strong and clear in tone, singing with great fervour in “I have no money for my bread” and with horror as he wrestles with the consequences of the protagonist's actions. I've previously admired bass Derek Welton in Bach and he brought a Passion-like mood to his narrations here. He also has a core of magnificent rounded bass sound to bestow on his contribution to “Go down, Moses”.

The real star of the performance, however, was soprano Indra Thomas. Maybe the least impeccable vocally of the soloists, she nevertheless owned the stage in her every appearance in her combination of feeling and identification with the text. “How can I cherish my man?” was almost unbearable in its agony, husky lower register employed to devastating effect. The floated high notes in the following “Steal away” had an almost unearthly beauty and as the boy's mother in the second part she was full of riveting maternal passion before soaring beautifully again in “Oh by and by”. While everyone else sang well and interpreted appropriately, Thomas alone seemed to be living the text and music.

Conductor Eckehard Stier was a sure-footed guide through the score's varying moods; like in other very different works, I greatly admired his ability to tie together Tippett's disparate elements into a powerful dramatic arc. There was nothing to quibble over in the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's performance either, from the shatteringly loud chords punctuating the score's very opening to the softest threads of sound when required.

The Tippett was preceded by Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song and Messiaen’s Hymne, both of which appeared, probably foreseeably, a little shallow in comparison. I'm not an especial fan of Pärt's particular brand of minimalism; if anything, I think in reaching for profundity he seems to somehow lose musical substance, but I doubt if many performances of Silouans Song have been as ravishing as this. With strings alone, Stier guided the orchestra through the work's detached, repetitious segments with glorious tone and yearning phrasing. Messiaen's early work, too, was given sterling treatment by Stier with a beautiful ear for orchestral colour. However, it was the main event, A Child Of Our Time, that brought this year's festival to a magnificent finish with, given recent events in the Middle East and elsewhere, its message as universal as it was when first composed.