Wednesday, June 16th 2021   |

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ in S.F.

By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN

Almost three decades ago, Michael Tilson Thomas, the famous conductor, pianist and composer, approached United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) ambassador and film icon Audrey Hepburn about a special project intended to honor her.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts “From The Diary of Anne Frank” with mezzo-soprano Isable Leonard at his left. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony)

Hepburn, who was noted as the most visible UNICEF ambassador following the death of Jewish film star Danny Kaye, had long identified with the most famous victim of the Nazis, Annelise Frank, the author of what was first published in Dutch as “Het Achterhuis” (“Secret Annex”) but what today is known in English as “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.”

Hepburn was the exact same age as Anne Frank and she lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, as did the entire Frank family and others, who had hidden themselves away. Hepburn survived the war and went on to become an international celebrity, while Frank’s diary became a lasting testament to the hardships endured by victims of the Holocaust.

Thomas, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, who had fled anti-Semitism to find hope in America, was commissioned by UNICEF to compose a work to be based on passages of the diary. He enlisted Hepburn’s help in selecting specific passages that she felt would accompany Thomas’ work for symphony orchestra. 

The premiere San Francisco Symphony performance of Michael Tilson Thomas’ “From The Diary of Anne Frank.” (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony)

The result was Thomas’ original composition “From the Diary of Anne Frank,” which premiered on March 19, 1990 in Philadelphia with the composer conducting the New World Symphony and Hepburn reading the passages from the diary before the live audience. The work went on a tour of several cities including Chicago and Houston, before culminating with a performance at the General Assembly of the United Nations. Later that year, Thomas began to revise his score and conducted that version with the London Symphony Orchestra on May 30, 1991. Hepburn again was the narrator for the work.

Thomas went on to assume the position of music director at the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, not quite two years after Hepburn’s death in Switzerland from appendicular cancer. 

Thomas had already announced his expected retirement from the SFS in 2020 and with the impending 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights championed by Eleanor Roosevelt in the very city where the United Nations was founded, he wanted to return to this important work one last time. One of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insisted that participation in the arts of a community was a human right.

Also, in light of the recent shooting event in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Thomas felt the time dictated the work and its underlying theme of survival against unexplainable hate should be heard again. The work was performed by the SFS in a series of four concerts on Thursday, November 12 through Sunday, November 15. 

Principals rise after the performance of “From The Diary of Anne Frank.” (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony)

Tilson’s work is sumptuous and heart rending and only 36 minutes long. It is played in four sections, each covering sections of the diary in chronological order. Thomas begins the work with what he describes as a flourish, symbolic of the times before the Nazi occupation. There is a solemn intention to relate to the words of the Kaddish prayer “according to his will,” which gives way to a playful, innocent dance. This allows us to hear the first words of the diary as recited by the narrator.

Thomas charged mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard with the role of speaking the passages of the diary, while the orchestra slowed or sped up according to certain phrases she would utter. “I want this diary itself to be the friend for whom I’ve waited so long and I shall call my friend, Kitty. ..”Dear Kitty.”

Throughout the remainder of the work, whenever the voice of Anne Frank addresses her diary, she does so by calling out to her imaginary friend, Kitty. 

The second passage reflects the time when the occupation occurs and there is major play between minor and major chords that eventually speeds up, indicating the tumultuous and uncertain times, the young author records. “I only know we must disappear of our own accord and not wait until they come to fetch us,” she writes.

Leonard’s voice is a perfect counterpoint to the orchestra with a youthful exuberance that eventually gives way to despair.

“I could write forever about all the suffering the war has brought, but then I would only make myself more dejected. There is nothing we can do, but wait as calmly as we can until the misery comes to an end. Jews wait – Christians wait – the whole earth waits – And there are many who wait for death,” she writes prophetically. The music takes on a somber and tragic tone as the family goes into hiding.

Thomas worked his orchestra skillfully and elicited beautiful tones from the horn section and reeds with balance from the string section. The final portion of the second section ends quietly.

The final performance was a magnificent Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”). (Photo courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

Anne’s love of nature and her wanting to be a part of the cycle of life is seen in the third section, the plaintive call of a teenager wanting to acknowledge her entrance into womanhood. 

“I believe that it’s spring within me,” the singer read. “I feel it in my whole body and soul.” The music is enchanting, but at the same time there is a feeling of incompleteness. Towards the end of the passage, she writes hopefully: “‘Every day I feel I’m developing inwardly and that the liberation is drawing nearer. Why then should I despair?” Anne’s theme and Kitty’s theme are heard once again as if commenting on the finality of what is going to happen.

The final section ominously predicts her demise. “I want to go on living even after my death,” she writes, a young teenager having to confront her own mortality at a time when she should be pondering a long and fruitful life. The final passages are commentary on the fate that befell her and most of her family. (Only her father Otto Frank survived the Holocaust.)

When the final notes are heard, they are somber, but hopeful. “For in spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” The orchestra rose up. And then came the final “Dear Kitty….”

In conjunction with the work, the San Francisco Symphony offered a display on the First Tier of Davies Hall regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the notes about the composition, Thomas acknowledges that the piece is really as much about Audrey Hepburn as it was about Anne Frank. “The work would never have existed without her, and is is dedicated to her,” he wrote. 

The second half of the program was a magnificent rendition of Ludwig von Betthoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” the history-making symphony that forever changed the complexion of the modern symphony.


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