The tagline "From darkness, light" is the driving phrase remembered when thinking of the Holocaust Museum Houston. It's also a fitting phrase for capturing the story of Annelies "Anne" Frank, whose journal recounted her years between 1942 and 1944 hiding from Nazi forces. Her story of hiding in a secret annex and what was happening in her secluded life is steeped in the darkness of her people's struggle. Years later, her story was brought to light when her father — her family's sole survivor of the Holocaust — secured the publication of the journal. It has inspired plays and movies, has become a staple of literature and has been reprinted in more than 70 languages. It has also inspired a musical interpretation Houstonians will get a chance to witness thanks to a libretto compiled and translated by Melanie Challenger and composed by James Whitbourn.
In September the Houston Chamber Choir, in partnership with Holocaust Museum Houston, will present Annelies: The Diary of Anne Frank. Adding to the excitement, Whitbourn will be in attendance for both performance dates to speak with the audience about the piece and its meaning in modern times.
The 75-minute composition "reflects Anne Frank's journey and what she went through in the form of music. I’m very pleased we have the opportunity to do this - especially with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz next year," says the museum's CEO Kelly J. Zúñiga.
The Annelies performances follow the recent expansion of the museum's campus, which has bolstered its abilities as well as the way it delivers the organization's message. The performance will christen the Mady and Ken Kades Stage inside the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Theater as the first major work to be hosted in the venue.
"Our mode of operation here is we’re teaching the lessons of the Holocaust not just in a factual format by reading a wall or book but learning through the arts. We have a gallery, we’re learning it through art, through artifacts, film, panel discussions and also music. Music tells a story, and this piece does that very beautifully. It’s a different way of being exposed to the Holocaust," Zúñiga says.
The 14-movement piece originally premiered in 2005 at Cadogan Hall, London by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Choir of Clare College Cambridge and soprano Louise Kateck. The U.S. premiere took place in 2007 in Westminster Choir College with the Westminster Williamson Voices, an instrumental ensemble, with soprano Lynn Eustis. The world premiere of Annelies in its completed chamber version was performed in 2009 in the German Church, The Hague, The Netherlands. In it violinist Daniel Hope led the ensemble, along with the Residentie Chamber Choir and soprano Arianna Zukerman.
The Houston debut has large shoes to fill — which is where the Houston Chamber Choir enters to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned internationally renowned groups.
Bob Simpson, the choir's founder, tells us the "piece is universally revered as one of the most touching, revealing, personal expressions of hope," and that it demonstrates a belief in finding goodness in the world despite all the evidence to the contrary, especially for Anne. "We’ll think of how to bring the range of emotions out of this text by the color of our voices and the vocal techniques of the musicians."
Given the composition's context, Simpson felt it was important that the soprano soloist be able to sing these texts from the experience of someone who is of the Jewish faith. He reached out to Laura Broscow to assume the task.
"We are bringing someone to sing this with us. There is something so sacred with this expression," he says. "We’re thinking very deeply about how to make this a truly memorable experience for the members and the audience," he adds.
With a story as widely known as Frank's, audiences no doubt will share in the emotional highs and lows of Frank's experiences. The same principle applies to the choir, who will be in rehearsal for weeks leading up to the Houston premiere.
"I think there will be tears in the rehearsal. There will be moments where we’ll have to be quiet for a moment. We’re just vehicles to communicate the music that James has written, and our job is to not get in the way. We’ll steel ourselves in the performance and put on our game face to not be overwhelmed with the emotion. James has written a piece that is an effective communicator [about] Anne Frank's belief that goodness still exists in the world."
Even though Frank's life ended at age 15 due to typhus while she was detained in a concentration camp, her story is that of hope, which is evidenced in Annelies.
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"You come away feeling the uniquely rich and deep soul of this young person: She started [chronicling] when she was 13 and, at her last entry, she was 15. This was an adolescent speaking of things in a profound way that goes beyond her years and can only be put in the category of some special insight that was given to her," Simpson says. "By fluke, her words — that she never expected anyone to read — were made available to the whole world. It shows we can do something in some small way to keep our hopes and the whole world's hopes alive through our actions and feelings."
Performances of Annelies: The Diary of Anne Frank are scheduled for September 21-22 at 6:30 p.m. (VIP reception and lecture) and 7:30 p.m. (concert) Saturday and 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday at Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline. For information, call 713-224-5566 or visit houstonchamberchoir.org or hmh.org. $10 to $100.
"And Still I Write: Young Diarists on War and Genocide," an interactive display that includes the writings of Anne Frank, is on view in the Rhona and Bruce Caress Gallery as part of HMH's permanent exhibits, on view 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays at Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline. For information, call 713-942-8000 or visit hmh.org. Free to $15.