Music, Preview, Vocal music

Remembering Anne Frank: Voices West

A preview by Marc Shulgold

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’re pure within.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank

With those poignant words of Anne Frank, English composer James Whitbourn’s choral tribute comes to a gentle end. When his Annelies is performed later this month by Voices West, it will serve as a reminder of the life and writings of an amazing young girl.

Not that we need to be reminded. The world will never forget Anne Frank.

And yet, it’s appropriate that, at the conclusion of a week marking International Days of Remembrance, the words of this immortal diarist be presented. And what better way than sung? The bittersweet quality of Anne’s writing contain a lilting sense of poetry that grows when delivered musically.

James Whitbourn, composer

James Whitbourn, composer

Still, Whitbourn’s work (premiered in 2005 with a text adapted by English poet Melanie Challenger) makes for some emotionally draining listening. No surprise that it also proved difficult for the singers.

“Oh yes,” agreed Voices West music director Michael Todd Krueger, “the first night of rehearsal, there were tears all over the place.” For 11 weeks, his singers have been preparing Annelies (Ms. Frank’s full first name), and it hasn’t been easy.

“To some extent, the choir has to remain neutral,” he said. “Over time, they’ve been able to handle their emotions, but then, there were times when they were too intellectual. We had to get a balance, where we’re not all that detached. But the music’s occasional difficulties helped us focus on getting our performance just right.”

Michael Todd Krueger

Michael Todd Krueger

Whitbourn deftly solved the problem of transferring to a mixed-voice choir the words of a young girl (Frank was 15 when she died of typhus in a concentration camp). “The men are given the more military parts of the text,” Krueger noted, such as Anne’s description of the rounding-up of Jews outside her Amsterdam hiding place.

Many of the more personal diary entries are given to soprano Amy Maples, whose task, the conductor said, is to communicate “the charm, spirit and grace” of the writer’s surprisingly upbeat words. “Amy is young enough for our audiences to relate to Anne,” he added.

Despite the overwhelming sadness of the subject, there are some light moments, such as when Anne playfully describes the process of bathing in the hushed world of her family’s hiding place. “The music at that point does sound like ‘A Long Way to Tipperary,’ doesn’t it?” Krueger commented.

The version presented by Voices West at Bethany Lutheran Church and Temple Emanuel will be Whitbourn’s chamber-size setting (the original was for full orchestra), here accompanied by a piano trio and solo clarinet, which serve to provide coloristic touches in this heavily vocal work.

Voices West

Voices West

For all their softly understated emotions, the choral passages did offer a major challenge to the singers, Krueger pointed out. “There are three levels of difficulty. Some segments are fairly straightforward, such as the little German chorale that was one of Anne’s favorites. Then, there are sections with what you’d call Jewish harmonies. These were foreign to many of the singers. Finally, the highest level of difficulty were the dissonant passages, some of which are in bi-tonality (two different keys simultaneously), like when they cry out, ‘Westerbork!’ ”

The latter reference is to the Dutch refugee camp that later became a holding place for Jews rounded up before being shipped to concentration camps. This point will be footnoted in the program book along with the full text, Krueger said. The importance of Anne’s words will no doubt draw most audience members to their booklets, rather than to the singers – which is fine with the conductor.

Reflecting on the significance of this time of remembrance and on recalling the graceful words of a talented but ill-fated writer, Krueger understands his responsibility in doing justice to Anne and to that tragic period in our history. “Those of us in the choir have a common goal to make the world a better place,” he said.

“This has been an incredible experience for the singers, and I know there will be tears shed at these concerts. But we want our listeners to experience the performances as comfortably as they can.

“That said, we need to remember that, in this piece, we’re dealing with the words and thoughts of a person. We want to take our audiences on a journey, to change their lives, if only for a moment.”

Voices West will perform James Whitbourn’s Annelies at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18 in Bethany Lutheran Church, 4500 E. Hampden Ave. and at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 19 in Temple Emanuel, 31 Grape St. Information: voiceswest.org or (303) 973-9593.

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