My semester teaching at the Syracuse University’s Strasbourg center is almost over. My students played their final concert and have begun returning to the U.S., and our teenaged daughters are wrapping up their studies at their European high school. Our family's last hurrah will be a two-week vacation through Provence, northwest Italy, and Switzerland before our return to the States.
A few weeks ago, I led a whirlwind, eight-day music study tour to Leipzig and Berlin. Right off the bat, we heard a superb performance of Bach's Cantata No. 67 by the St. Thomas choir and soloists in the Thomaskirche—Bach's own church. In the coming days, we attended fine performances at the Gewandhaus, Deutsche Oper, Komische Oper, and in the Kammermusiksaal of the Philharmonie. But it was Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin Radio Choir in Michael Tippett's A Child of our Time that I and, I believe my students, will carry with us for a very long time.
A Child of Our Time
sprang forth from Tippett's horror at the Kristallnacht pogrom of the Nazis, when 177 synagogues and 7500 Jewish businesses were destroyed. Attending a world-class performance of this work in the city that was the epicenter of its inspiration was extraordinary. In the days before the concert, we had visited museums and monuments in the city and thus had been immersed in images of book burning, discrimination, torture, murder, and war. During A Child of Our Time
, these impressions seemed to blend with the music. Tippett arranged five African-American spirituals as a unifying device to conclude each section. Clearly, Tippett’s concerns about injustice were not limited to Europe in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s.
The original home of the Berlin Philharmonic was destroyed during allied bombing in 1944. The striking architecture of the new Philharmonie is inspiring. Completed in 1963, the Philharmonie is famous not only for its spectacular acoustics but also for its vineyard-style seating that offers listeners excellent views of the stage from every direction, with the musicians at the center.
We sat just behind the orchestra facing Sir Simon for the whole evening. In a sense, he was conducting us
. In the opening work, a contingent of eight violins, perched in a loft to our right, contributed tone clusters to the sonic landscape. Later, these musicians quietly assumed their places on the stage, only to be replaced by fifteen women from the chorus who sang complex, otherworldly clusters themselves. We reveled in the magnificent individual and ensemble playing of the orchestra, and eagerly anticipated the beginning of A Child of Our Time
From Mr. Rattle's downbeat and the opening chorus: "The world turns on its dark side. It is winter," we embarked on a journey through despair, conflict, strife, and horrific deeds, juxtaposed against compassion, comfort, courage, and brotherhood. The last lines of the alto soloist, "The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring" and the final spiritual, "Deep River," with its message of promised freedom ("crossing over into campground") brought the oratorio to a hopeful close.
The performance reminded me of concerts I had heard by the Cleveland and Chicago Symphony Orchestras as a student, when I was on my path toward choosing music as a career. My thoughts returned to playing and teaching the piano, and giving thanks for the many gifts of both. No, we can't compete with the sheer volume and variety of timbres of an orchestra. But our instrument conveys its own power, beauty, and immediacy. (A conductor once said to me, "You're so lucky! I need to conduct other musicians to make music, but you can sit down and make it immediately, anytime!")
This memorable evening reminded me that as teachers, we do more than give our students the skills to play the piano. We also connect them to the past and to the struggles of artists to make sense of their lives and times.