Take a generous portion of Randall Thompson (“Something Like a Star”), add tasty chunks of Hans Peter Zimmer (“Gladiator”), flavor randomly with Schubert, plainchant, torch songs, Bach, and klezmer before waving a bottle of Darmstadt from a middle distance, and you get a popspourri that would gladden and quicken most every community chorus.
Organize it around the words of the most famous modern young martyr and it spells box office. There have been 17 dramatizations of “Anne Frank’s Diary”—composer James Whitbourne’s Annelies is only the latest, though apparently the first musical setting. From the murmurings I overheard at Coro Allegro’s concert at Sanders Theatre on Sunday afternoon, many in the audience were disposed to be profoundly moved before any music greeted their ears.
Therefore perhaps none of us needed 20 minutes from a well-spoken liberal rabbi, or anyone else, to tell us how Anne Frank suffered and died for us all—not only for her own, but even for today’s oppressed. Her famous diary is Holocaust literature most have known since childhood; its power is amplified by its utter ordinariness. Locked in her hiding place for two years (and this after having escaped Nazi Germany years earlier), she recorded the thoughts and feelings of an average upper-middle-class girl in that place and time. What makes her account and her persona so powerful is what the reader knows about her fate before even opening the book.
The words themselves, however, are often banal, and the organization episodic and free-form, as we would expect from a teen’s diary. The task of yoking the sentiments surrounding Anne to a musical vehicle will surely be more successful when conjuring up the spirit rather than the letter of the girl. Librettist Melanie Challenger’s solution was to arrange non-chronological selections of diary entries into pseudo verse, with lines and stanzas suggesting a metric pattern that the texts don’t deliver. Anne Frank was no literary stylist, and her words fall flat when presented as verse which is neither bardic nor lyric:
We are in blue sky
Surrounded by black clouds
Walking in the pouring rain
walking down the street,
each of us with a satchel filled to the brim.
Whenever you feel lonely or sad
try going to the loft
on a beautiful day and looking
at the sky.
Certainly there are deeper moments: knowing the events to come, how could we not be frightened by:
Up above you can hear the breathing.
Eight pounding hearts, footsteps on the stairs,
a rattling on the bookcase.
Suddenly a couple of bangs.
But poetry it ain’t, much less poetic text for music.
Composer Whitbourne’s dilemma, which he did not solve, was how to organize these verbal snippets into an hour-long musical arc. Instead we got a kaleidoscope of broken glass, some colorful, some bland. The manner in which the manifold musical styles were applied to the words felt random. Why did we get something like Dvořák’s “Goin’ Home” for the section “Life In Hiding?” Maybe that one makes sense as musical pun; but why plainchant for a posthumous newspaper account of Anne’s capture? For “Courage” we got “Something like a Star,” which works better with Frost. There was a march, a slow rag…Only the two settings of “Der Winter ist vergangen” seemed inevitable: first as a Bach chorale, and again with Schubertian, and later modern, tweaks.
So the problem for me was inauthenticity of form. If we consider Annelies a pops piece, then should it not be of our own time in the same way the intact diary was of Frank’s time? If it’s serious classical music of today, then it should have a distinguishable compositional voice. And what of the instrumentation? We got a chamber reduction for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano that was not only quiet but also mostly minimalist. The instrumentation suggestion of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” was not apparent in anything I actually heard; the noodles from the inexplicably rear-facing piano in particular were embarrassingly simplistic. It is hard to imagine what a symphony orchestra would have been doing in the original version, as there were hardly enough notes to go around for four players.
The performances seemed quite fine, especially the clarinet of Bruce Creditor and the cello of Aritides Rivas, who together produced some moments of intense chamber music and some passingly nostalgic klezmer riffs. Soprano soloist and speaker Elissa Alvarez had luster of tone and an appropriate engagement with often superficial words. She did not discover much drama.
David Hodgkins conducted the 50-voice Coro Allegro with dignity and assurance, and the sound they produced was nicely varied with color and fine tone at all dynamic levels. The blend among the sections of the chorus was exemplary as was its balance with the small ensemble. The articulations were excellent. I would very much like to hear them in standard repertoire.