He's been called naive. His awkward operas have been parodied for being muddled Jungian parables. And worse, he has been accused of amateurism. What a price poor Sir Michael has had to pay for his radiance.
When Michael Tippett died in 1998, I predicted that his glowing music would finally find an adoring audience. I was wrong.
The British composer wrestled with deep, dark human concerns. The struggle could be ungainly, but if he found his way (he didn't always), it led to a realm of Aquarian illumination. Unfortunately, though, the last few years have been a dark age as far as Tippett is concerned.
His music has mostly disappeared from concert stages and opera houses outside of Britain (and it's not all that much played inside, either). The celebration of the centennial of his birth this month has been desultory, with debate in the British press about whether it might not be better to just sweep his scores under the rug. Truth-seekers, especially eccentric, childlike ones, can be awfully embarrassing sometimes. (He did dress funny.)
But Saturday afternoon, the British conductor Andrew Davis unapologetically brought "Rose Lake," Tippett's last piece, to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the radiance returned. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, for 25 minutes, glowed.
To be perfectly fair, the audience did not respond with anything approaching rapture. But blinded by that glow, I stand firm: Sooner or later, Tippett's day will dawn, and I hope it will be as rosy as his last rosy endeavor.
Inspired by what the composer called an "adventure holiday" to Senegal, he completed "Rose Lake" in his 90th year. It evokes the saltwater Lake Retba, which is famed for turning different shades of pink throughout the day. The sight of it, Tippett wrote, "triggered a profound disturbance within me."
That disturbance is the birth of the lake's song. In the score, the lake tunes up, draws inspiration from the sky, bursts into full song, says farewell to the sky and sings itself into sleep. Even Tippett, in the program note he wrote for the premiere, admitted this sounds pretty naive.
More accurately, it reads naive. It sounds amazing. Against a landscape of burbling tuned percussion, the lake awakens with the earthy elation of six exuberant horns. Each variation on the song brings a new orchestral euphoria. In between, the landscape burbles, and the lake absorbs that too. The sun sets with a gentle plop, as Tippett himself described it.
This is music that goes beyond description. If consciousness coming into being had an organic sound, this profusely lyrical singing lake could be it. In a land where beauty cannot excuse extreme human misery, Tippett bravely concentrates on questions of soil and the soul.
The profound disturbance Tippett felt in the thrall of a pink lake is that of accepting beauty amid our troubles. A devout pacifist (he was a resister in World War II and jailed), he here uttered his final call to arms with the only weapon he knew -- beauty.
The Philharmonic performance, under Davis, had considerable luminosity. I could imagine deeper sonorities, but not much deeper. And it was a lovely gesture on Davis' part to set a rosy tone by opening the afternoon with Delius' "The Walk to the Paradise Garden." This short excerpt from the opera "A Village Romeo and Juliet," is just that walk in music, and it was written just around the time Tippett was born.
The second half of the program revisited the familiar. Schumann's Piano Concerto featured Helene Grimaud as soloist, a popular pianist in popular music. At first, I found her jarring, especially giving Grimaud's jingle-jangle -- or glittery, if you like that sort of thing -- way with the first movement. But she became seductive in the slow movement and brightly virtuosic in the last.
To conclude came Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn." This is jolly good competent music, the variations excellent exercises in technical expertise and orchestral proficiency showing all the different sides of a theme that probably wasn't, in the end, by Haydn. Davis took it in jolly good stride; the Philharmonic played with flair.
But how mundane Brahms' polished variations sounded after Tippett's clumsier pseudo-variations. For Brahms, the theme was an object to examine and admire. For Tippett, his lake song was, in the deepest sense, the song of the earth and psyche, with each variation a different doorway inside.