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O Child, Where Art Thou?

A Child of Our Time, 15th January 2018, Royal Festival Hall

A Gala fundraising concert for the Refugee Council took place at RFH on Monday, 15th January 2018. It was not only a concert, but an action aimed at raising awareness about children who come to the country as refugees and who require to be given chances of education and care equal to the ones local children receive. Their special circumstances are not only their birth in another country and the necessity to flee the war or change of a regime, but also traumatical experiences of losing parents, siblings and other loved ones in front of their eyes, and not only do they need support of lawyers and councellors, but also post-traumatic treatment and care. These and other issues were raised by Maurice Wren, the head of Refugee Council, as he opened the evening which was themed around the journey of a child through the world which is not always welcoming. Judith Kerr, the renowned children’s author and illustrator (her The Tiger Who Came to Tea is favourite with many kids) opened the evening with a reading from her ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’, establishing the visual imagery of a child-traveller who does not yet know the scale and scope of the events he or she is fleeing from and for whom it is the family, toys and everyday objects that still mark the universe and save him or her from psychological catastrophe in face of the loss of everything.

Judith Kerr

Hilary Hahn and members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner started the musical part of the evening, and Hilary infused wonderful Violin Concert in E Minor by Mendelssohn with her personality, making its different movements progress as though they were part of herself and were flowing freely from her instrument. Looking at this musician one could feel how music making is constantly connected with individuality of musicians, and how many efforts one needs to develop one’s talent and one’s own vision in life – and these thoughts immediately connected with fates of refugee children and teenagers many of whom were present in the hall that night. And the sheer beauty of some of the musical phrases of the violin concert in Hahn’s interpretation still continued to sound in listeners’ ears as they were leaving the auditorium. It made us also consider the role of music in giving this simple experience of delight and harmony and sheer movement through time and space, thus making us believe in the possibility of creation of beauty from small pieces of sounds and in the power of human talent.

Hilary Hahn and Edward Gardner

This feeling of open possibilities that life could give moved back from music to words when young Sabrin Suleiman who had arrived to the UK from Eritrea in 2014 and subsequently became one of the young leaders of the Refugee Council, came on stage to speak to the audience. The young woman was sincere, honest, funny and always assertive in her speech. Although of course one knew that her discourse was defined by the occasion, she spoke so vividly so that one could visualize her journey and imagine being in her shoes, and when her friends and colleagues, as well as other members of the audience applauded her, it felt like dozens of other teenage stories suddenly stood on their feet at RFH ready to be told and heard.

Sabrin Suleiman

The evening culminated with Michael Tippett’s ‘The Child of Our Time’ written as a composer’s response to Herschel Grynszpan’s shooting the German diplomat Ernst von Rath and consequent Kristallnacht which was one of the most horrifying events of the late 1930s, opening the possibilities of vandalism and cruelty that were unheard of before. Tippett treats the theme not directly, but rather on mythological level, with his oratorio being closer to Greek drama or to Bach’s Passions (from which he drew inspiration) than to a documentary musical re-telling of Crystal Night story. Quite interestingly, it also had links with gospel singing, as it borrowed five spirituals directly from gospel music, with these well-known melodies being symphonically reworked and their tempi changed by Tippett. Four singers, soprano Sophie Bevan, mezzo soprano Alice Coote, tenor Toby Spence and bass Brindley Sherratt (who had a special role of vocal narrator), as well as members of the London Philharmonic choir and friends, joined Edward Gardner and LPO to sing this oratorio. Its most wonderful moments to me were spirituals when soloists sang along with the choir as though swiftly drifting through waves of the ocean and bringing us along with them. Other parts of the oratorio brought forth strong visual images of some deserted land where a boy and a mother were close to death and where the boy (sung by Toby Spence) made history through an individual rebellion.

Toby Spence

However, the antagonizing forces that they had to oppose were pictured and presented very metaphorically in Tippett’s own libretto, so one had to imagine some bigger picture of the end of the world (the oratorio begins with the words ‘the world turns on its dark side, it is winter’) and pass through the journey of five spirituals and a dramatic story told by singers to end up in ‘the moving waters renew the earth, it is spring’. Despite the difficult harmonic structure of the piece, the singers delivered it with force and beauty, with Sophie Bevan’s voice trailing over the choir and orchestra like a pigeon hailing peace and calm to the tired passengers of Noah’s Ark. It was a great evening to remember and a rare chance to contribute to a good cause through joining many others on the same path, and hopefully such events will indeed open Britain to newcomers.

Alice Coote

Sophie Bevan. Credits for all images: Simon Jay Price

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