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The final concerts of Keith Lockhart's contract as the Utah Symphony's music director emeritus are next weekend. That prompted him to program a large choral-orchestral work he always wanted to perform in Utah, but hasn't — and to bring back a soloist who has shared several of his best evenings with the Utah Symphony.

The oratorio "A Child of Our Time," by English composer Michael Tippett (1905-1998), is performed often in the U.K., but is less familiar to audiences in the United States. Its melodic material is drawn from the uniquely American source of African-American spirituals.

It's an intriguing compositional choice on Tippett's part, given the European setting of the work's subject matter, which was ripped from the headlines during the lead-up to World War II. Tippett, a lifelong pacifist, was deeply troubled by the story of Herschel Grynszpan, a young Polish Jew who shot a German official in 1938 as a passionate response to Jewish persecution.

The Fascist response to Grynszpan's headstrong act was to step up propaganda and violence against Jews, culminating in the Kristallnacht ransacking of thousands of Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and Austria on Nov. 9, 1938.

Tippett began writing his oratorio in 1939, telling his story in three large sections, following Handel's structure for his "Messiah" oratorio. Tippett also paid tribute to Bach's Passions by interspersing original composition with well-known tunes that comment on the story action.

While Bach made use of Lutheran chorales for these interludes, Tippett instead chose spirituals: "Steal Away to Jesus," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See," and "Go Down, Moses." "The work is very unique and very courageous," Lockhart said. "It's written by a very young composer at the outbreak of World War II, and it led to Tippett's success and pre-eminence in British music circles."

Tippett wrote his own libretto for the work, basing it on theories of Carl Jung and his own deeply held belief that violence begets more violence. Not long after its debut, he served jail time as a conscientious objector when Britain entered the war.

The central themes of "A Child of Our Time" remain current.

"Given the current unsettled nature of the Middle East and our controversial involvement with various and sundry conflicts there, it's a piece that resonates," Lockhart said. "It will send people away thinking long and hard about the nature of the way we treat our fellow men."

The Utah Symphony Chorus carries the burden of transmitting the emotional core of the piece. "Tippett switches back and forth between the familiar patterns of American Negro spirituals and thorny, contemporary choral writing," he said. "It's an extreme challenge for the chorus."

Soprano Indra Thomas, one of four guest soloists for this weekend's concerts, is featured on the 2008 recording of "A Child of Our Time" by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Colin Davis. A versatile artist, Thomas is hailed as a great Verdi soprano and a fine interpreter of jazz, spirituals and the music of Gershwin.

The duality of Tippett's compositional style in "A Child of Our Time" makes the piece perfect for Thomas. As the daughter of a minister, she grew up singing in church choirs and tasted fame after being cast as a young gospel singer in the 1989 film "Driving Miss Daisy."

Tippett's inclusion of American spirituals is her favorite aspect of the oratorio. "This is music that speaks for oppressed people everywhere," Thomas said. She is especially touched by the use of "Deep River" at the conclusion of the work, "a heavenly moment that provides healing."

Thomas has toured with Lockhart and the Boston Pops and collaborated with him and the Utah Symphony for renditions of Mahler's Symphony No. 8, Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs" and Verdi's Requiem.

The 2001 Verdi performance prompted Tribune reviewer Catherine Reese Newton to call her "the hero of the evening," thanks to a clear, accurate soprano that "sliced through the orchestral and choral textures with breathtaking effect."

"I love her voice, and I love her musicality," Lockhart said. "Wow, what a great chance to work with someone you admire in a piece they know well."

Go down, Moses

The Utah Symphony presents the first Abravanel Hall performances of Michael Tippett's oratorio "A Child of Our Time."

With • Conductor Keith Lockhart, the Utah Symphony Chorus, soprano Indra Thomas, mezzo Marietta Simpson, tenor Russell Thomas and baritone Derrick Parker.

When • Friday and Saturday, April 22 and 23, at 8 p.m.

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $15 to $85 ($5 more on concert day) at 801-355-ARTS, http://www.usuo.org or the box office; discounts for students with ID.

Learn more • Lockhart will lecture each evening at 7:15 in the hall's First Tier Room.

Note • The 75-minute work is performed without intermission; latecomers will be seated at the conclusion of the first section.

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