IN: Reviews

Dubious Setting Emotionally Delivered


I approached Sunday’s Chorus pro Musica performance of James Whitbourn’s Annelies with trepidation. It is a large work for chorus, soprano,  and chamber ensemble to texts from Anne Frank’s diary. The Diary of a Young Girl was required reading for me in high school, and I have revisited it a couple of times since then; it remains a heartbreaking and moving document. I was afraid of being lectured to, or that Anne’s words would be used as emotional weapons, or to give the music a depth it hadn’t earned.

It turns out that I do take issue with the piece, but for different reasons. It is clear that the piece has a broad appeal. It has become very popular recently; Jamie Kirsch, Chorus pro Musica’s music director, said that there were three performances scheduled in Boston this season alone. He also stated that he felt the piece would enter the canon, in large part due to its accessibility. The portion of the audience that stood at its conclusion certainly felt it worth commemorating. But I left Old South Church unmoved, feeling that Annelies lacked the one thing that you might have thought it could not possibly be without: a voice.

The piece is about 80 minutes, in 14 (!) movements. With the exception of the opening “Introit” and a brief foreshadowing in the second movement, the underlying structure of the piece is neither musical nor thematic—it is more or less strictly chronological. The movements have titles: “The last night at home and arrival in the Annex,” “Devastation of the outside world,” “The hope of liberation and a spring awakening.” With a few exceptions, the texts are all from Anne; Melanie Challenger is credited with the libretto. The music is written in a pretty but anonymous style that one encounters frequently in contemporary “accessible” choral music. There are touches of Vaughan Williams (Dona Nobis Pacem), falling gestures that made me think of Gerald Finzi, and harmonic movements that recalled Michael Nyman; and the ghost of Randall Thompson never seems far away. The mood is predominantly dark and melancholy. Whitbourn takes every opportunity to sound-paint pictures when the words permit, perhaps intending to give the piece a visual, cinematic quality. (Kirsch, in his pre-concert remarks, noted that some of the piece was “movie-like,” and endorsed that as one of the elements that contributed to the work’s accessibility.) There are episodes where the writing adopts an identifiable style: the fifth movement, “Life in hiding,” includes a waltz and an echo of 1930s popular song.

But that same movement, the longest in the piece, demonstrates in the small the conundrum of the piece as a whole. It begins very quietly, with the line “The days here are very quiet.” The piano chimes in a high register, which is explained by the text “the chiming of the Westertoren clock/reassures me at night.” When the piano drops out entirely, we hear “the silence makes me so nervous.” Upon being told, “you no doubt want to hear what I think of life in hiding?,” there is a sudden transition to a kind of swooning waltz music for description of nature The movement then shudders to a halt for the only text that is spoken in the piece—oddly, the one place where any humor appears, the “Prospectus and Guide to the Secret Annex.” This passage is perhaps a parody of an advertisement for a rest home: “A Unique Facility for the Temporary Accommodation of Jews and Other Dispossessed Persons… It is Open All Year Round, Located in Beautiful, Quiet, Wooded Surroundings… Singing is Permissible, only Softly and After Six pm!” The appearance of bare speech is odd, the more so as the passage states “Singing is Permissible!” Then the 1930s song appears, for description of washing in tub; and then sudden pathos, for a description of ragged children running in the cold. The movement is a collection of effects, each moment engaging and unthreatening to the ear, but they do not cohere. This sacrificing of point-of-view for scene-setting keeps Anne’s voice at arm’s length. The texts are sung at times by a soprano, and at times by the chorus, and it is not always clear why the texts are apportioned the way they are. Placing Anne’s intimate words in the mouths of a large chorus changes their impact and meaning, and switching them between soloist and chorus weakens the sense the reader has of distinctive, youthful, intelligent human being.

Kirsch’s pre-concert talk contained several anecdotes where he wrote to the composer to ask for clarification about the piece, and this points to the other major issue with the work: There are choices that seem just inexplicable and which require outside justification. The use of speech in the fifth movement mentioned above a choice that I still cannot figure out. In the eighth movement, Whitbourn uses only three small fragments of text, and the first is “Kyrie eleison.” Leaving aside any issues of theological or religious appropriateness, the text appears without preparation or explanation, it is not further elaborated on, and the music doesn’t make any case for its appearance. Kirsch said the composer explained this choice by saying the use of the text from the Catholic mass was intended to show that the catastrophe that enveloped Anne was “a universal, not exclusively Jewish, tragedy.” Again, leaving aside the sloppy use of the word “universal,” this simply makes no sense. The mere inclusion of a text cannot make such an argument, as shown by the fact that the composer had to explain it to the conductor, and the conductor to us. There are other, similar confusing choices that I will not catalog here.

Finally, as much beloved as Anne is, as preternaturally talented and thoughtful as she was, she was still a fourteen year old girl, and the texts struggle to support the weight of a piece as long as the Beethoven 9th. The quotation chosen to close the work is a lovely if confusing thought, sentimental but not profound, especially taken out of the narrative of what became of Anne: “Whenever you feel lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know you are pure within.”

Kirsch told us that the work of rehearsing the piece was emotionally difficult for some participants, and the performance was affecting for the commitment of the performers. The music’s broad appeal depends heavily on that accessible harmonic language which is lush and rich, and the chorus never stinted on color and texture. A few more low voices might have been wanted in the loudest parts of the piece. Soprano Lynn Eustis, who sang at the American premiere of the piece, conveyed the texts intelligently and displayed a warm voice with dark shadings. Her pleasing sound though was at odds with the girlish qualities of the text. The chorus was supported by an ensemble of piano, violin, cello and clarinet (there also exists a version for large orchestra). Despite Kirsch’s suggestion that clarinet might evoke Klezmer music, no hint of anything that exotic ever appeared; neither did the music seem to acknowledge the fact that the ensemble was identical to that of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The Old South Church did not make the musicians’ job easier. It was quite cold, which may explain some pitch issues in the ensemble, and since the space seems to swallow up some plosive consonants, having the texts in the program was a necessity. In the quieter passages, the combination of quartet and chorus was effective; but as the music increased in volume, the chorus tended to swamp the instruments.

The piece was bookended by iterations of Stephen Paulus’ Hymn to the Eternal Flame, a short, pretty setting of a text by Michael Dennis Browne. Browne’s poem is an unaccompanied incantation that repeats the word “every:” “Every face is in you/Every voice/Every sorrow in you/Every pity…” Paulus gently shifts the text accent so that the music has a gentle pulsation that does not fall into boredom, and which subtly emphasizes with a brief melisma one single-syllable word in each of the three stanzas: “love,” “hope” and “soul.” Playing it both before and after Annelies, was an interesting conceit that didn’t quite take flight. At the end, the chorus left their risers to surround the audience in the church, and sang the Hymn from the floor. This surprised some audience members who had not realized the piece would be performed again, and who had to sit down once they understood they could not escape. It was impressive to hear the piece sung with perfect ensemble and solid pitch despite their dispersal. It was a welcome gesture of consolation.

 See related interview here.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Obviously many issues at work here- some of them contradictory.
    I come from a family with many Holocaust survivors, and many more victims. In certain ways, this reminds me of the discussion in Jewish communities around the production of Schindler’s List. I remember hearing that my relative repeatedly hung up the phone on Steven Spielberg when he requested interviews with her- the thought of people munching on popcorn in a movie theater while seeing Jews marched to their deaths, as well as the financial gain or notoriety that she felt individuals and companies would derive from a depiction of the atrocities she witnessed was too much for her. Other members of my family thought that there was no better to keep the memory of the victims alive and combat Holocaust denial than through the arts. For me, Annelies presents many of the same issues.
    Personally, I would like to see Annelies performed with the engagement of, and also for the benefit of Jewish communities and Shoah survivors.
    Perhaps some of the proceeds from the concerts and recordings could be donated to institutions such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad VaShem, or organizations that help elderly Holocaust survivors and their families.

    Comment by Ian Pomerantz — March 4, 2014 at 3:37 pm

  2. I regret that the reviewer did not appreciate Annelies by James Whitbourn that was performed Sunday, March 2 by Chorus pro Musica. Often, with new compositions, unfamiliar text and musical approach require several exposures in order to become accessible to many listeners. In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the singers on Sunday but I do not write this as an indignant or defensive response to the reviewer who is certainly entitled to his well-written opinion. Rather, I merely wish to point out that the opinions expressed above are not statements of fact. The reviewer’s inability to comprehend the cohesion of the work does not mean that it was not cohesive. Since childhood, I have struggled to understand the Holocaust. I have read extensively about it in order to at least understand what happened, if not why. I have repeatedly exposed myself to worthy literature on the subject that was almost unbearable to read. However, I have never felt the tragedy of the Holocaust more intensely than I did in yesterday’s performance. Nor have I ever felt the consolation of remembrance more acutely. Whitbourn’s work evokes Anne’s life in hiding, representing her feelings of fear, sorrow, loneliness, guilt, deprivation, yearnings for freedom and respect for her humanity. Lynn Eustis’s soprano solo was stunning in the purity of her voice, perfectly reflecting the innocence and purity of Anne’s spirit. The role of the chorus represents Anne’s role as the voice of the millions who perished without their stories ever being heard. From my vantage point within the chorus, I looked out on an audience that clearly understood the power and beauty of the piece. We collectively cherished the memory of Anne and the millions who perished, silently, with her. I’m sorry the reviewer did not join us.

    Comment by Genevieve Pluhowski — March 4, 2014 at 4:55 pm

  3. My friends and I were among the fortunate to attend the Chorus pro Musica performance of James Whitbourn’s Annelies on Sunday. We note that CPM was tasked with delivering the emotion inherent in Anne Frank’s words and Whitbourn’s music – and boy did they deliver!

    Similar to the reviewer, we had approached the performance with some degree of trepidation, but for entirely different reasons.

    For us, it’s the emotion of a performance that rings true. For the reviewer, it seems to be more a matter of an apparent obsession with musical minutiae that blinded him to an appreciation of the whole and diluted the music’s meaning.

    Commenter Genevieve Pluhowski says it best – that the audience “clearly understood the power and beauty of the piece.”

    We couldn’t agree more.

    Comment by Jere Page — March 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

  4. Clearly, Mr. Schuth has put a great deal of thinking into his review of “Annelies” and the Paulus “Hymn to the Eternal Flame”. Unfortunately, much of the review appeared to be an intellectual debate with the composer, suggesting that his entire experience of the performance was quite detached. A shame — because there is no “detached” way to experience either of these pieces, which are deeply emotional in content and in delivery.

    I, also, was one of the performers on Sunday. I have no quarrel with Mr. Schuth’s technical compositional observations; there were times during the rehearsal period, with my own “music critic” hat on, that I felt quite critical of the shifts of music, rather telegraphed moods, and some of the composer’s strategic decisions. I was tremendously surprised, therefore, at how powerful the experience of performing the piece was for me personally, and, from what I could see and hear, for the audience in listening as well. The strength of that experience, and the audience’s reaction, is sadly missing from this review.

    I just get the feeling, reading this, that rather than speaking about the piece’s sonic and emotional impact as a performance piece, Mr. Schutt took the opportunity to write a graduate thesis, with the intellectually removed of an academic critique and in doing so missed the true weight of the concert’s experience. Readers depend on critics not just for academic insight, but also for a sense of what happened. Hopefully, in concerts to come, Mr. Schuth will broaden his critical horizons and provide that for his readers.

    Comment by Dan Malis — March 7, 2014 at 3:48 pm

  5. I have been following this review and the ensuing conversation and have been really intrigued by the direction and tone of the conversation. While I did not attend this concert, I have participated in and attended my fair share of “Holocaust operas” (as some of us performers irreverently call them), and last winter I premiered a piece that commemorated a massacre in Argentina.

    There seems to be a trend in current music to write music about big, historic events without having “earned” the right to do so- I love Brian’s phrase “…using Anne’s words to give the music a depth it hadn’t earned.” A composer should be awful nervous to think about appropriating such a massive subject as the Holocaust- at best they might end up trivializing what happened, and at worst it comes off as opportunistic (I know that people will have strong emotional reactions to the Holocaust, so they’ll also have strong emotional reactions to the piece).

    I didn’t attend this concert, but Brian’s review is much more compelling than the defenders of the piece, who seem to have little to add beyond “I thought it was very moving.” Was the music moving in and of itself, or was it Anne Frank’s words that were moving? Obviously, it’s difficult to separate out the two, but it’s something that should be considered. There are many examples in history where audiences were deeply moved by pieces of music that were later discovered to be drivel- Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory” was probably the most popular piece of his during his lifetime, but is now regarded as something of an embarrassment.

    I’m not meaning to imply that the reaction of the audience was not valid, I’m merely suggesting that the fact that the audience had a very strong emotional reaction doesn’t indicate that the piece was any good. We all have strong reactions to things that may not be particularly well made. If we really care about Anne Frank’s legacy, we need to demand that the quality of the music live up to the quality of her words.

    Comment by Joe Turbessi — March 8, 2014 at 1:47 pm

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