March 16, 2022

Princeton Pro Musica Returns to Richardson Stage with Musical Tribute to Anne Frank

By Nancy Plum

The World War II account of Anne Frank, with its immortal story of hope amid a harsh reality, seems particularly timely in these days of current events. As a result, Princeton Pro Musica may find that its presentation this past weekend of a choral setting of Anne Frank’s diary has more impact now than its original performance date two years ago, especially as the chorus returns to live performance.  Originally scheduled for the spring of 2020 to mark the 75thanniversary of the end of World War II, British composer James Whitbourn’s oratorio Annelies not only honors the life and legacy of Anne Frank but also finds parallels with current fears and anxiety of uncertain realities. 

Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “It seems like years since Sunday morning. So much has happened. It’s as if the whole world had suddenly turned upside down.” Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau referenced these words when welcoming the audience back to a live Pro Musica performance after a two-year hiatus. With music by Whitbourn and a libretto by author Melanie Challenger, Annelies is a “musical portraiture” for chorus, orchestra, and soprano soloist providing a snapshot of Frank’s life. Joining Pro Musica and the accompanying orchestra last Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium was Princeton graduate and operatic soprano Lily Arbisser. 

The voice of Anne Frank was not confined to the soprano voice, but could be heard throughout the piece from orchestra, chorus, and soloist. Whitbourn incorporated musical references to the sights and sounds of 1940s Amsterdam into the work, beginning with an “Introit” capturing bells and a vibrant city atmosphere. In this opening movement, Arbisser sang as a cantor while the women of Pro Musica presented a subtle unison line. Whitbourn used choral monophony and unharmonized wordless lines sung by the chorus as a vehicle for certain words of the text, and Pro Musica’s presentation of these passages in the opening movement set well a sense of foreboding for what was to come.

Throughout the piece, Arbisser sang with a light and clear sound, innately emphasizing the youthfulness of a teen-age diarist. As months turned into years in hiding, the written voice of Anne Frank aged, and in the later passages of Annelies, Arbisser’s voice seem to reflect an older narrator. Her singing was often accompanied by just the piano (expertly played by Eric Plutz), or by one of the solo winds of the orchestra. Whitbourn deliberately kept the orchestration light so as to not obscure the words, with strings and percussion often providing a soundscape to support the dramatic action and singing.

The choral writing in Annelies was layered, with most of the piece for full ensemble and specific passages for chamber chorus. Under Brandau’s direction, Princeton Pro Musica was well up to the task of conveying the dramatic text, whether acting as a Greek chorus commenting on the action or narrating the story themselves. The men of the ensemble had several key scenes, including describing Frank’s transition from home to hiding and the “devastation of the outside world” diary entries in which Frank recorded the bombing of Amsterdam. The libretto included text in both Dutch and German, and the full ensemble of Pro Musica consistently demonstrated a solid well-blended sound, particularly in the chorale-like passages in German.  

Whitbourn’s orchestration of Annelies included full string sections, but only single players for each of the winds. Flutist Mary Schmidt, oboist Karen Birch Blundell, clarinetist Dan Spitzer and bassoonist Gili Sharett each played elegant solos to accompany the drama, especially clarinetist Sharett depicting days in hiding and oboist Blundell complementing some of the most sensitive texts. As a composer, Whitbourn states a particular affinity for the horn, with its capability for a large palette of instrumental colors, and hornist Karl Kramer-Johansen demonstrated rich solo playing, particularly with the plaintive “Kyrie eleison” text. Concertmaster Urara Mogi also played several elegant solo passages, as well as cellist David Heiss.

Conductor Brandau maintained solid control over all performing forces, maneuvering transitions well to accommodate sudden outbursts of sound or convey an acutely poignant text. Following the completion of Annelies, Brandau wisely closed the concert with a choral “coda” — an orchestrated arrangement of Mark A. Miller’s I Believe in the Sun. Especially with a lush full orchestration, this arrangement was uplifting with a full sunrise effect, closing the concert with a feeling of hope and possibility.