I firmly believe that composers are actual magicians. Yes, they learn mathematically through rhythm, intervals, theory, and discipline, and yet they tap into this otherworldly realm. They somehow piece things things together to create a transcendent experience that cannot be measured empirically or even properly put into words. The same is true of conductors, who can bring black and white markings from a page and weave a tapestry of emotion and expression. Composers who conduct are extra special. The moment I shook hands with James Whitbourn in the summer of 2018, I knew he was special. I stood in an Oxford parlor in a room full of strangers, and in an instant I felt safe and accepted, and I perceived that he carried magic with him. Throughout the course, choral singing in the morning and choral composing in the afternoon, I found this to be true, whether in conversations over meals, over the piano, or as he stood in front of our choir. Yet in all those ways I knew him as conductor and teacher, this week, however, I got to experience the magic of him as composer.
Under the vaulted ceilings National Cathedral, he conducted a performance of his work Annelies, a choral setting of the Diary of Anne Frank. From the haunting, elegiac notes with Klezmer overtones to the ethereal choral pieces, coupled in the program with snippets from her diary, the piece painted a tragically beautiful tribute to a young life lost, and the spirit with which she lived.
Sometimes music gives us the language of grief, transports us beyond where words can carry us. In this work, James took the words, the spirit, the horror, and the loss and expanded the framework of experience to be able to take in the story. Not only does this work give Anne a more expansive voice from beyond the grave, but the work sends a stark, clear warning against injustice, prejudice, and hate. In music, he has created depth and dimension to the lessons her world already gives us. The victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting just 7 months ago were referenced in the program, and their memory hung in the air and permeated the grief in the music from Anne’s story, a chilling reminder that the fight against hatred still rages.
I cried with strangers during the performance, and after the concert, I could only hug James, and tell him that the work was exquisite. But James knows all too well, there are times that words alone are inadequate.
To see a full performance of Annelies from another concert, see: