Symphony Chorus to debut Anne Frank oratorio locally at Touro Synagogue

By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN

In the early 1940s,  Annelies Marie Frank was just an ordinary Jewish teenager, one of thousands living in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation. Despite the hatred being stirred up by the Nazis against the Jews, she and her family were somehow able to get by relatively unscathed for the first two years of the occupation. However, when the dreaded deportation order hit their doorstep, the family knew it had to do something besides meekly submit to a fate that would be akin to a death sentence for all of them.

A photo of Anne Frank, the subject of “Annelise,” an oratorio by John Whitbourn that will be heard for the first time at Touro Synagogue on April 13.

Fleeing was not an option. Every country surrounding The Netherlands was under rigid Nazi control. There was nowhere for the Franks to go, so they did the next best thing. In July 1942 they went into hiding in the secret back rooms of a building Otto Frank had been using as a business office, hoping to survive until World War II was over.

For the next 25 months they never left their hiding place until their capture and arrest by the Gestapo. During those two years in seclusion, Anne Frank wrote perhaps the most famous diary in recorded history, recounting her experiences, emotions and deeply profound thoughts about the state of the warring, hostile world in which they were living.

That diary, published two years after Frank’s death at age 15 in a German concentration camp, became a classic among the vast body of literature documenting the Holocaust. The Diary of Anne Frank has been translated into more than 60 languages and was transformed into feature films, stage productions and documentaries.

However, nothing had been done on it musically, until 2004 when British composer James Whitbourn wrote the score for a choral libretto by Melanie Challenger titled Annelies (Frank’s name in Dutch). Since then, it has been performed by choral groups dozens of times all over the world.

Annelies will be presented for the first time locally by the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans on Friday, April 13 at Touro Synagogue, 4238 St. Charles Avenue, and again during French Quarter Festival on Sunday the 15th at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 1116 Chartres Street. The Touro concert begins at 7:30 p.m. and the St. Mary’s concert starts at 11:00 a.m.

Both concerts are free and open to the public.

The Symphony Chorus of New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Stephen Edwards)

The baroque-style oratorio for all four voice categories runs 70-75 minutes and consists of 14 individual movements. The 50-member chorus, directed by Steven Edwards, professor of music and director of the College Honors Program at Delgado Community College, will be accompanied by a chamber quartet.

Soprano RuthAnn Chadwick is the soloist, singing lyrics that are direct quotes from The Diary of Anne Frank. The quartet is comprised of Kate Withrow (violin), Jonathan Gerhardt (cello) and Christopher Pell (clarinet), all of whom are members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and Brian Hsu (piano), a member of the Loyola University music faculty.

The piece will be sung in English with selected passages in Dutch and German. The lyrics, most of which come directly from Frank’s own words in the diary and are dated, will be in the programs distributed at the concerts.

Describing the piece, Edwards termed it “very directly emotional. It is really the heart-on-your-sleeve kind of emotional.” But, despite that, Edwards noted that it is “uplifting” as well.

“It’s not just wallowing in misery,” Edwards said. “It’s also full of variety of Anne Frank’s experiences. It’s a great narrative and a great story. When you put the whole thing together, I think the effect is not at all boring or depressing for the audience.

New Orleans Symphony Chorus director Stephen Edwards. (Photo by Rusty Walker)

“The reason that the diary has been so popular is because it isn’t unbelievably miserable and neither is the oratorio,” Edwards added. “I believe it presents a nice narrative in the sense that there is always hope and it’s worth it to be alive. The experience of life is worth having.”

Edwards went on to cite a direct quote from Frank’s diary that precedes and follows an old German Renaissance folk song about springtime in the score: “If you become part of the suffering, you’d be entirely lost.”

Some of the later passages in the libretto are not from the diary but are, instead, the work of the librettist. As Edwards explained, “At the point where (sic) they were captured,  the diary stopped; but the story doesn’t stop there. So there are some things from the Old Testament – a couple of the psalms, and then at the end, it goes back to the diary and it chooses some (of Frank’s) hopeful comments.”

Some of the more memorable observations made by Frank in the diary juxtapose the contrast between the peacefulness of the sky above and the turmoil and misery occurring on the ground below. The work concludes with Frank’s optimistic declaration, “As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky you will know you are pure within.”

For more information about the concerts go to www.symphonychorus.org. To view a performance of Annelies by a chorus, soloist and chamber quartet in Amsterdam, click here.

To read more about the piece itself, click here

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