in: News & Features

February 28, 2014

Chorus pro Musica and Coro Allegro Both Diarists

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Anne_FrankIt’s understandable when famous pieces get duplicated performances in the programs of the area’s 100-plus choral groups: for instance Boston Cecilia and Chorus pro Musica are both doing the Bach B-minor Mass this season. But it’s surprising when a relatively obscure piece gets three performances in such a span. On this Sunday, Chorus pro Musica is giving this season’s second performance of James Whitbourn’s Anneleies, based on the diaries of Anne Frank; on March 30th Coro Allegro will offer the third. (It was given its Boston premiere last October, at NEC.)

In advance of the CpM concert, BMInt spoke to the conductors of each ensemble. Jamie Kirsch is the sixth music director of Chorus pro Musica, in his first season at the helm. He shared his thoughts about Whitbourn’s composition. Conductor David Hodgkins talks to us about his performance with Coro Allegro as well.

BMInt: How are you settling into your new position?

JK: It is a joy working with singers of the caliber of CpM, who love choral music as much as I do. At the same time, they also care about the health and survival of the group. It is a wonderful combination and something I do not take for granted. I am thankful for their work and help in making this a very smooth transition.

Your upcoming concert presents Stephen Paulus, Hymn to the Eternal Flame (2005), and James Whitbourn, Annelies (2005). What inspired this programming?

I discovered Annelies two summers ago and have wanted to perform it ever since. We choral conductors (and our singers) are always looking for new and challenging works based on evocative and inspiring texts.

Jamie Kirsch (Santa Mila photo)

Jamie Kirsch (Santa Mila photo)

How so? What can you tell us about Annelies?

This composition is the first setting of Anne Frank’s words. So we are working with a meaningful, a powerful, text. It has been a moving, touching, sad experience for the singers to prepare this music.

The poet Melanie Challenger collaborated with British composer James Whitbourn to compile texts from the Diary of Anne Frank. These words have never been set to music before, and they needed to gain the approval of the Anne Frank Fund and the family. This in that sense is an “authorized” setting: Challenger and Whitbourn capture the spirit and meaning of Anne Frank’s words extremely well.

Musically, this is a cantata in 14 movements, lasting 80 minutes. The music is accessible and straightforward; it is direct, like the diary. The composition intertwines different musical styles, including plainchant, spoken word, waltzes similar to those Anne Frank might have heard on the radio, a Mozart-inspired tune (which, again, she might have heard on the radio during her time in hiding), and also some melodies inspired by Jewish music. Annelies is not a Jewish work, though; the combination of music and text work together in an effort to speak to the widest possible community.

April sees many Holocaust memorial events; even though this is a March concert, is that a goal of this program?

Not at all. This is not a Holocaust memorial concert, and the composer has stated that Annelies is not a Holocaust piece, but rather a portrait of Anne Frank’s life. My goal for the concert was simply to share this beautiful work with my singers and our audience, and hopefully reach a wider audience than usual given the subject matter.

What about the other work on this concert?

Stephen Paulus’s Hymn to the Eternal Flame will open and close.

Paulus’s work is characterized as a “sacred piece.” Is it used for a service, like Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh?

This is a movement from a larger oratorio, To Be Certain of the Dawn. Premiered at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, the dedication to this work characterizes it as “a sacred Holocaust memorial oratorio, to be rooted in themes and subjects of mutual interest to the Jewish and Christian faith communities.” Like Annelies, it is choral music which aims to reach out to a wide community. The chorus and I love Paulus’s music, and it’s a beautiful piece. The Bloch was written for an actual Saturday morning service, I think. So the Paulus is not exactly the same in that respect. Paulus’s work seems to have been written as part of a memorial or commemoration.

You pitched this slate of music to the group?

Yes, the Chorus pro Musica board and I always work together on our concert programs. I am grateful that they are fully behind this concert and have been from the very beginning.

You are performing Anneleis in the chamber version for violin, cello, piano, clarinet, soprano, and chorus. That was the version in which the work received its US premiere, in 2007. Will the names of the players be familiar?

JK: The instrumentalists are Jesse Irons, violin; Jacques Lee Wood, cello; Paul Won Jin Cho, clarinet; & Natsuki Hiratsuka, piano. They are four of the finest players in Boston. Lynn Eustis, chair of the voice department at Boston University, also sang the American première of Annelies. We are honored and delighted to be working with her.

Lynn Eustis soprano soloist (file photo)

Lynn Eustis soprano soloist (file photo)

Does the role require a lot of acting as well?

Yes, including an extended spoken section.

Does the chorus take on any definable roles?

Yes; most of what they sing are words directly from the diary, but they also sing lines from Psalms and from Lamentations in one movement as commentary on the events in the diary, and in another movement they sing Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy, in a moment of reflection. Although this has obvious Christian connections, its inclusion underscores the Holocaust as a universal, not exclusively Jewish, tragedy.

An hour before the concert, the Reverend Amy Fisher will speak about “the nature of post-Holocaust Jewish thought as it relates to the meaning of life.” That sounds like a big subject. What will you be adding on the piece itself?

I will be adding insights about what audience members might listen for in this large 80-minute work, including diverse musical styles, instrumentation, text setting, musical rhetorical issues, and so on.

Last words for readers?

We hope audience members will be moved by Annelies, enjoy the historic space of Old South Church, and take advantage of this opportunity to hear Chorus pro Musica, soprano Lynn Eustis, and a chamber ensemble of the highest caliber.

The concert will be presented in Old South Church at 3:00pm on Sunday, March 2, 2014. The concert runs approximately 90 minutes and is performed without intermission. Jamie Kirsch and Rev. Amy L. Fisher, director of the Interfaith Center & University Chaplain at Suffolk University, will present a preconcert talk at 2:00pm. To learn more about Annelies, visit Chorus pro Musica’s website for links to newspaper articles and an interview with composer James Whitbourn.

 *      *      *

BMInt next spoke with conductor David Hodgkin.

Coro Allegro will be offering James Whitbourn’s Annelies at Sanders Theater at 3:00 on March 30th. Why are CpM and Coro doing Annelies performances so close together?

D. H.: The short story is this: Both Jamie Kirsch, the conductor of CpM and I were in contact with the publishers and composer to see if there were other plans for a Boston performance and were both told no. By the time we discovered that this was indeed, not the case, all of the publicity for both groups had gone out. Coro considered many options and decided to just go ahead with our original plans. I happen to think it will be fascinating to hear two different interpretations of a new work piece in such close proximity to one another.

One of the wonderful aspects to come out of Coro and CpM performing the work so close together is that it inspired the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Choral Directors Association to sponsor the two ensembles in a collaborative public performance of Annelies during their annual conference at Smith College this July in Northampton.  This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight Boston’s rich choral tradition and to explore a new work in greater depth while bringing Annelies to a whole new audience

I’m excited about doing the piece. Both groups are framing the work differently. CpM is pairing a shorter work, Stephen Paulus’s Hymn to the Eternal Flame, with it. Coro Allegro is having Rabbi Berman from the Central Reform Temple of Boston speak as part of the concert, combined with the reading of excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary that will be heard later in the music.

Anneleis has immediately become attractive to choral groups across the country for a number of reasons. The subject matter is riveting—this is the first time the rights to set the diary to music have been granted—and the power and insight of Anne’s own words will take your breath away. Composer James Whitbourn has created a work that is heartfelt, well written, accessible, and, in the chamber version that both groups are presenting, affordable. (The original version requires a very large orchestra). While there is, perhaps, a special interest in this piece to those from the Jewish community, there also exists in Anne’s words and Whitbourn’s music a universality about the human condition that transcends religious and ethnic affiliations.

I assume that Annelies isn’t unrelievedly sad. After all, the diary itself has the normal quotient of an adolescent girl’s normal moments.

On the contrary, most of the work is about fear, suffering, yearning, guilt, uncertainty, resolve, and hope in the face of adversity. The libretto doesn’t set the entire diary- it’s not really chronological—and it’s certainly not a happy piece. There is not the normal linear arc one might find in a story line— it is more episodic than that. However, these episodes loosely create an overall framework that encompasses the timeframe of going into captivity through the families’ capture and the concentration camp. Most of the ordinary day-to-day drudgery that comes up in the diary is only briefly alluded to in the music.

David Hodgkins (file photo)

David Hodgkins (file photo)

From the bits I heard on YouTube [here] it sounds a bit like Randall Thompson; it’s that accessible.

I would say that Annelies is a bit edgier than Thompson, but it’s definitely accessible, at least by modern day standards. There’s one movement that creates drama and fear through a series of parallel augmented triads—things of that nature—but the goal of the piece is really all about letting the emotional impact of Anne Frank’s words come through. Anne Frank herself was so direct and precise in her thoughts and emotions that setting this piece in a harmonically tortured or avante garde way would only obscure the words and voice of a 13-year-old girl. I guess the best way to describe it would be to say that the writing is tonal without being simplistic.

There’s tremendous drama, beauty, and frailty that is created with a wide variety of colors and styles. At one point there’s music for the chorus that is reminiscent of a Bach-style chorale in German (Anne’s native tongue), except the melody is actually a secular song from Anne’s childhood. The appearance of this tune has the same affect on the listener as “Edelweiss” does in the Sound of Music—a brief, sweet recollection tinged with sadness. Throughout the work these stylistic homages to the past appear and ground us in memories. There is also some chant, and even a Kyrie. One thing that becomes apparent in the diary is that the Franks are not overly religious, though Anne often speaks of trusting in God. They celebrate Christmas, for instance, as well as Hanukah. One of the lighter moments in the work is when the soprano sings what sounds like a silly children’s song about washing herself in a tin tub, but that happiness is short-lived: the music turns on a dime as she looks out the window and sees children walking through the streets with no shoes and no coats, gnawing on carrots to stave off hunger.

Tell us about the instrumentalists. Do they have a lot of exposure?

The instrumentalists have a number of roles to fill. They are often quite independent melodically, but just as often are being employed to establish a mood or create sound effects like the chiming of the town square clock, or someone unexpectedly  knocking on the door. The work is really pure chamber music, with each component having a distinct and integral role. The performing forces are Elissa Alvarez, soprano; Darryl Hollister, piano; Kristina Nilsson, violin; Aristides Rivas, cello; Bruce Creditor, clarinet. The chorus operates as a sixth player and often has long stretches of independent, a cappella singing. There are lots of solo opportunities, and some extraordinarily beautiful ensemble moments. In terms of musical style and colors, you will often feel as if you have been transported back to an era gone by.

Yoshi Cambell’s program notes are here

Coro Allegro, David Hodgkins, conductor
Annelies: The Diary of Anne Frank
Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 3pm
Sanders Theatre

Tickets here.

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