Musical Tributes to Anne Frank: Tasks for the "Good At Heart"

by Leonard Lehrman

This article was accepted & paid for by THE FORWARD but was not run due to space considerations.- ed.

Visiting New York in the past fortnight were two distinguished musical tributes to Anne Frank that, unlike the recent TV mini-series, drew directly upon her diary, both climaxing in hopeful settings of the famous July 15, 1944 passage about still believing that people are "good at heart."

First, on May 12 and 15 at Temple Israel on East 75th Street, came the New York premiere of the beautiful 1969 one-woman opera, "Dnevnik Anny Frank (The Diary of Anne Frank)," re-orchestrated by the composer in 1999 for nine instruments, with libretto and music by Grigori Frid, the Russian composer of Jewish descent born 85 years ago in Petrograd. A 1939 graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and founder in 1965 of the Moscow Youth Music Club, he still lives in Moscow today. His style may properly be described as advanced Shostakovich, including many clusters, free rhythms, and a bit of jazz.

Premiered with piano May 18, 1972 at the Moscow Composers Union, "The Diary" received its orchestral premiere five years later in the Caucasus mountain resort town of Kislovodsk, conducted by Leonid Shulman, now a resident of Arlington, VA, who came to New York for the premiere and plans to conduct it this coming season in Baltimore and at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The U.S. premiere took place in 1978 in Syracuse, in a translation by Donald Miller. It has its awkward spots, including such phraseology as "some free-natured songbird" and "as if the front again neared them," but is generally more felicitous than the Alla Gomon-James Briscoe text sung by the dynamic soprano Dunja Pechstein, conducted by Sybille Werner, and printed in the Temple Israel concert program. Phrases such as "the weight upon my heart... pulls to a deep chasm" and "We must hold to courage," combined with Ms. Pechstein's strong German accent (never voicing an end consonant, for example), made the experience less satisfying than it deserved to be.

Sixteen years ago, my own one-man opera, based on Sholokhov, premiered in Berlin to positive reviews but an outcry for a better German translation--which it was given, by Peter Zacher, for its Dresden premiere 11 years later. Such an outcry is certainly in order here. The most qualified person to respond? I'd nominate librettist Enid Futterman, author of the 1998 "Bittersweet Journey: A Modestly Erotic Novel Of Love, Longing And Chocolate," and collaborator with New York-born, Brandeis-trained composer Michael Cohen (1922- ) on no fewer than three works based on Anne Frank's diary, including the chamber work "I Remember," which was commissioned and premiered by Serenata in 1996 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and enjoyed another presentation May 20 at Hofstra.

In a symposium following the May 20th presentation, Ms. Futterman described how she and Mr. Cohen had managed to secure the right to poeticize Anne Frank's text by playing some of the music for Otto Frank shortly before his death in Basel in 1980, followed by 13 years of negotiations with lawyers. The chamber work, which overlaps in part with each of their other two Anne Frank collaborations, is conservative, accessible, assured and sincere, even if less "elevated" (to use Mr. Cohen's own descriptive term) than Mr. Frid's work. Even though not printed in the program, the text was at least 90% comprehensible.

Astute programming, to warm the audience up for the work's modal and canonic language, included Mr. Cohen's "A Song for Silenced Voices," performed by cellist Semyon Fridman and pianist Doris Stevenson, as well as works by Ernest Bloch, Paul Ben-Haim, and the delightful "Four Hebrew [actually Yiddish] Canons" of 1972, with titles such as "Litvak Lilt" and "Amul Iz Geveyzen," by the little-known Charles Lichter (1910-1990) whose career as conductor of the CBS Symphony spanned recording projects from Carl Ruggles to Frank Sinatra.

Referring to the fact that unlike the famous diary, now more widely read than any book next to the Bible, and at least some of the art it inspired, Hofstra Professor Emeritus Hyman Enzer, coeditor of "Anne Frank: Reflections on her Life and Legacy" mused: "How many of us will still be here in 50 years?"

Dr. Lehrman is Music Director of North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, Editor of OPERA TODAY, Founder of the Jüdischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin, and the composer of 6 musicals and 9 operas, including the completion of SACCO AND VANZETTI, begun by Marc Blitzstein

(Dr.) Leonard J. Lehrman www.artists-in-residence.com/ljlehrman