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Princeton Pro Musica brings the wrenching “Diary of Anne Frank” to Musical Life                        

By Anne Levin

In the 72 years since its first publication, The Diary of Anne Frank has haunted readers with its account of a Jewish family’s life in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. The young, spirited Anne, whose full name was Annelies, poured her fears, frustrations, and even some joys into her red-checkered diary, given to her on her 13th birthday just weeks before her family was forced to flee to the attic of the building that housed Anne’s father’s business.

As millions who have read the book are aware, Otto Frank was the only member of the family to survive. Anne, her mother, and sister died in concentration camps. When Otto Frank eventually returned to Amsterdam, a colleague who had helped hide the family presented him with Anne’s diary and other writings, which had been left behind when the Gestapo discovered the hiding place. Frank had his daughter’s diary published in 1947. Eventually, it was translated into more than 70 languages and adapted for stage and screen.

The diary was the inspiration for Annelies, a choral work by British composer James Whitbourn with versions for full orchestra and chamber choir. The large version was first performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London in 2005. Two years later, the chamber version debuted in Princeton, at Westminster Choir College.

It is that version that Princeton Pro Musica will present on March 15 at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus.

Princeton Pro Musica

“I’m particularly drawn to composers who are able to tell a story in a new way,” said Ryan James Brandau, artistic director of the 100-voice, symphonic chorus. “This piece, in particular, uses contemporary musical language to tell a story that is familiar to people around the world. It’s important for us to hear that story and embrace it. To take these famous words and give them life through music opens our ears and our hearts in a different way than just reading them would. It draws us into Anne, the individual.”

Whitbourn, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and a member of the its music faculty, first began working on Annelies when a woman named Melanie Challenger brought it to his attention. “She had been working on a music project in Bosnia, which at the time was torn apart by war,” he said during a phone conversation from Oxford. “She had seen how children in the community were brought together by music. She had heard some of my music and she knew the story of Anne Frank.”

Whitbourn was intrigued. They worked on the piece for a few years before permission was granted to use the diary text. “It is a very closely guarded text. That permission had never been granted before for a major choral work, so that was a wonderful privilege and changed the project totally,” he said. “The involvement of Anne’s first cousin made the difference. It was a long and difficult process, but ultimately a very joyous one. So it became, for me, a rather personal, family piece rather than something that embodied the totality of those years and all that they represented. In that way, it was possible to write a piece that was true to the individual, and I hope people that knew her as a human being would recognize her.”

Princeton Pro Musica on the steps. (Courtesy of Princeton Pro Musica)

Annelies is divided into 14 movements. The smaller version is for four solo layers — clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The vocal writing is the same in both forms.

At the 2005 London premiere of the fully scored version, Leonard Slatkin conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; and soprano Louise Kateck. At the U.S. premiere two years later at Westminster Choir College, Whitbourn and James Jordan led the Westminster Williamson Voices, an instrumental ensemble, and soprano Lynn Eustis.

The upcoming Princeton Pro Musica performance will be led by Brandau and features soprano Lilly Arbisser, who, like Brandau, is a Princeton University graduate.

Annelies has been performed by choirs and orchestras in different parts of the world. But   Whitbourn has a special fondness for Princeton — specifically Westminster Choir College, where he served as composer in residence. Asked about the future of the school, which Rider University is trying to relocate to its Lawrenceville campus — a move that many say will lead to Westminster’s demise — Whitbourn said it is a poignant question.

“These are people working at the highest level,” he said. “The college, over the years, has been a remarkable center of choral excellence, has provided the world with much great music, and provided composers with a platform and a voice. Annelies received its first American performance at Westminster. And then we went on to make a recording of it, which won a Grammy nomination. Luminosity (composed in 2007) also started its life at Westminster. So my ties to the school are very strong.”

Brandau, who also has significant connections to the school, said he is looking forward to leading Princeton Pro Musica’s performance of Annelies in March. He finds the chamber version, minus a full orchestra, to be just as effective as the larger-scale work.

“I am a huge fan of the full orchestra and its capabilities, but I think the sound of the chamber ensemble here is very evocative,” he said. “Its foundation is in the piano, but the three instruments paired with it — clarinet, violin, and cello — give it a very particular flavor that was intentional on the part of the composer. It draws on Klezmer ensembles and instruments associated with Jewish folk music, so he could tap into that well of melodic material.”

Brandau first read The Diary of Anne Frank in elementary school, and plans to visit it again this winter as he prepares for the performance.

“What appeals to me is the way Whitbourn’s music makes the words understandable,” he said. “We can work against the risk of letting her fame and the ubiquity of the diary encapsulate an entire tragedy. There were millions of Anne Franks whose stories we don’t have. I think the composer says it best: He calls the piece ‘musical portraiture in which the essence of a young girl is portrayed in the fragile medium of a human breath.’”

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