For decades, Anne Frank’s writings have hung in the social conscience. Next week, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (MCP) will suspend them a bit more. On Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation, the choir and music director Matthew Mehaffey will join in the Pittsburgh premiere of “Annelies,” a choral work by James Whitbourn with libretto translated and compiled by Melanie Challenger from “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
The production will be backed by violin, cello, piano and clarinet as well as soprano soloist Amelia D’Arcy.
“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a “familiar work of literature,” said Mehaffey. “And the musical setting does an amazing job at deepening the listeners’ commitment to Anne’s words.”
By placing the writing within a new artistic milieu, the experience becomes almost “cinematic” for listeners, added the music director. “The music and words wash over you as an audience member and give you more time than if you just read them.”
Elongation is a principle benefit of the performance, as the music, which Mehaffey described as “quite dreamy,” creates “a world around” Frank’s words.
Whereas readers can move from one brief written passage to the next, “the sound of the music reinforces the affect or the meaning behind those words, and as an audience member or listeners, you are forced to live with those words longer than if you were just reading them with your eyes,” he explained. “The gravity sinks in, and that’s one of the things that I’m continuously struck by.”
Mehaffey, who joined MCP last year, had previously worked with the piece. But his decision to bring “Annelies” to Pittsburgh was spurred by D’Arcy’s audition.
After listening to the soprano, “I immediately thought about doing this piece with her,” said Mehaffey.
“When I listened to it initially, I was very emotionally moved as I think most people will be upon hearing it,” said D’Arcy. “It’s just heartbreakingly beautiful — and in a simple way, if I can sing as beautifully as I can and can pronounce the words and deliver the text to the audience in the best way that I can, in some ways that is the best that I can do.”
Although D’Arcy is vocalizing Frank’s words, Mehaffey emphasized that “Annelies” is not a musical.
There is a universality to the piece in that D’Arcy “is Anne Frank, the choir is Anne Frank [and] everybody shares her words,” he explained. At points in the music, “the soloist will be singing an entry from the diary, and the choir will pick up right from her words. Or vice versa, the choir will tail off, and she will pick up.” Collectively, what the music does is help listeners understand that Frank was “still a little girl who had dreams and hopes and fun yet lived this incredible life in hiding [while] longing for freedom and wanting to go outside.”
The story is not only “heartbreaking” in that it “brings her life and the tragedy of the Holocaust alive in an absolute immediate way that’s impossible to ignore,” but that there are also “moments of transcendent joy and love and beauty within the piece,” explained D’Arcy.
Engaging such a diverse set of competing sentiments has personal resonance, said Mehaffey. “I have three daughters who are approaching the age Anne was when she wrote the diary. I look at their concerns, but also their carefree moments. She just wanted to be a little girl, and all of that was taken away from her.
“She had happy times and fun, but it was always shrouded by the reality of her situation,” he added, “and I think the addition of music to those moments really heightens the emotion behind it.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.