Students from Clark Atlanta University stood on the bimah just a few inches from the ornate, golden Torah ark and the towering twin menorahs of The Temple as they sang passages from “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.”
The soaring choral work they performed Nov. 12, entitled “Annelies: The Diary of Anne Frank,” is the only such musical composition to present the words of the Jewish teenager. A dramatic adaptation of the diary for the Broadway stage won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 and a Tony for best play that year. The film version won three Academy Awards five years later.
The English creator of the work, James Whitbourn, structures his composition chronologically. It traces Frank from the time the family made plans to go into hiding in mid 1942 to the time they were arrested by the Nazis in early August of 1944. But it also captures her shifting moods and the often, near poetic descriptions of a life lived in constant fear of discovery. The performance at The Temple included 10 of the composition’s 14 sections.
Cantor Deborah Hartman, who hosted the evening for The Temple, described the moving performance as one that closely embodied the text and captured the spirit of the inspiring words of Anne Frank.
“I had no idea how stirring this would be. It’s beautifully composed and beautifully set to music.,” she remarked. “I thought it was a stunning performance. The blending of voice was superb, exquisite.”
The idea for the performance at The Temple came from Curtis Everett Powell, who teaches music at Clark, a historically black college. He was a guest of The Temple during its interfaith celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.
Powell spent this past summer studying the Frank musical work at the international Choral Institute at Oxford University in England. He met the composer and heard him conduct a performance of his work. Returning to Atlanta, Powell was determined to share what he had learned with his students.
“It blew my mind,” he recalls, “I knew that many of them had read the diary in high school, but I wanted them to refresh their minds and their hearts with this musical work.”
Danille Taylor, dean of Clark’s School of Arts and Sciences, introduced the evening’s performance. Later she reflected on how Anne Frank’s life and message of a better world resonates with African Americans.
“These are artistic expressions that arise out of agony. It teaches us that we can make out of them something that lasts.”
The composition has been a popular one since its world premiere with a symphony orchestra and full chorus 14 years ago. A later recording, the symphonic choral version, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2014.
The Temple’s performance was a more intimate affair, with 16 voices and a chamber music quartet made up of local professional musicians.
In addition to the excerpts from “Annelies,” the evening’s performance also included three familiar hymns arranged or written by black composers and the words of the priestly blessing from the Torah.
Powell considered the historic sanctuary, with its legacy of accomplishments in the struggle for racial understanding and religious tolerance, an ideal location for the performance.
“To be honest, to have these students from a historically black institution perform this piece in The Temple, there could be nothing better than that for me.”
“Annelies,” which is also the proper first name for Anne Frank, concludes with mournful words from Psalms 19 and 79 and selections from the Book of Lamentations, which is read on the tragic fast of the ninth day of Av. But it also ends with words of hope written by Frank less than six month before she, her family, and the other residents of the secret hiding place were arrested.
“As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky,” she writes, “you know you’re pure within.”
It is that strong message of hope that most impressed Cantor Hartman of The Temple.
“I think she is the voice of hope for all of us. That in the midst of adversity and despair her voice was one of hope and resilience.”
“Annelies” is a moving, fully realized work that deserves an encore performance.