The genius of Anne Matlack, artistic director of the Harmonium Choral Society, is in her choices.
She easily could place her 100-voice choir–one of New Jersey’s cultural treasures–on cruise control and sail through a standard repertoire of pretty-sounding, crowd-pleasing choral classics and holiday favorites.
Instead, she chooses pieces like Annelies, James Whitbourn’s musical retelling of the Diary of Anne Frank.
Saturday’s performance at the Morristown United Methodist Church challenged her singers and the audience. The result was an artistic achievement that was both wrenching and rewarding.
Wrenching, because everyone knows the ending to a Holocaust story that still has painfully personal connotations for many of the performers and listeners.
The cantata forces us to confront hard questions about our neighbor, Anne Frank, the girl upstairs. How would we have fared in her claustrophobic lifeboat/prison? Would we have risked our own lives to save hers? Would we do it today for our neighbors in Secret Annexes everywhere, from Kiev to North Korea?
Annalies is rewarding as a reminder of our shared humanity, and of the ability of love and hope to take root in the most barren soil.
An encore performance is set for 3 pm today, Sunday, March 2, 2014. General admission is $25; $20 for seniors and students. Don’t let the somber subject or wintry forecast scare you off.
If you make the trip, you will be discover more bold choices by Anne Matlack.
She has chosen to accompany the music with a multimedia presentation, always risky. Such adornments can be distracting or gimmicky. Margot Jackler’s slideshow, marrying the choir’s music with photos of Anne Frank’s life and times, adds another powerful voice to the choir.
A couple of other daring choices conclude the show.
Anne Matlack has selected Mark Miller’s I Believe as a coda. She feels audiences need something uplifting after 75-emotionally charged minutes of Annalies.
I Believe is transcendent, a swirling hymn to the heavens inspired by scrawlings in a German cellar where Jews hid in World War II.
Harmonium sings this without a libretto; the chorus reaches another dimension in such moments, the conductor says.
After Saturday’s finale, it took awhile for a usually hard-boiled observer to regain his composure to ask Mark Miller about this stunning composition. Shockingly, Mark questioned its worthiness for such a program.
“This came out of troubling times in my life,” said Harmonium’s composer-in-residence, who also teaches at Drew University and is music director at Christ Church in Summit.
“I was feeling down about a few things in my life and in the country… institutionalized government, being black, being gay…when I discovered the words again,” Mark said. “We had just killed Bin Laden. Yet killing was not going to solve our issues. And I decided, I’m still going to believe in love. I sat down at the piano, and five minutes later, it just came.”
Anne Matlack also goes out on a limb with her soloist for I Believe: Grace Van Cleef, her 15-year-old daughter.
The music director knew this might raise some eyebrows. But after auditioning more than a dozen vocalists, she was confident.
“I was looking for a quality of innocence,” Anne Matlack said. “I liked Grace the best.”
Grace has paid her musical dues. In addition to Harmonium, the Madison High School sophomore sings in a regional choir, a school jazz choir and the choir at Madison’s Grace Episcopal Church, where her mom is music director. She is taking a music theory class, too.
Although she has not yet read The Diary of Anne Frank–her eighth-grade class read Elie Wiesel’s Night instead–Grace could not help wondering about the teenager whose story has inspired generations.
“When we did the concert, I tried to put myself in that place,” said Grace, who sang despite a nasty cold. “What would it be like to be her?”
MORE ABOUT THIS CONCERT: