Chorale’s ‘Immigrants’ concerts aim to ‘let people get the message’

“Children of the Holocaust: Immigrants of Hope” to be Janet McGhee's swan song
The Battenkill Chorale performs under the direction of Janet McGhee at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center in January 2015.
The Battenkill Chorale performs under the direction of Janet McGhee at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center in January 2015.

Although Janet McGhee’s Battenkill Chorale has performed concerts focusing on the Holocaust, she decided there was no better time to again touch on that subject than this weekend, Jan. 19.

(Be aware: Battenkill Chorale’s Sunday concert canceled)

“It’s timely with what is happening today,” McGhee said. “Kids and immigrants. Let people get the message.”

“Children of the Holocaust: Immigrants of Hope” presents only three pieces: “Annelies,” based on Anne Frank’s diary; “Golden Door,” with text drawn from Ellis Island immigrant interviews; and “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” based on text written by children from the concentration camp at Terezin.

Two conductor friends recommended “Annelies.” The 70-minute work was written by James Whitbourn and published in 2009. When she heard a recording of it, McGhee said, “slow tears fell down my face. The piece completely captured me.”

It also introduced her to Frank’s diary, a book she’d never read. Born in 1929 in Germany, Frank and her family spent most of their lives in Amsterdam.

When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, the family went into hiding in 1942 in an upstairs alcove behind a bookcase in the building where her father worked. Frank began a diary about their experiences, but the family was arrested in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. Later, Frank and her sister were sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they died. Only her father, Otto, survived. His secretary Miep Gies saved the diary, and in 1947 it was published as “The Diary of a Young Girl.” It has since been translated into 60 languages.

“I never read the diary until last summer and became consumed with it. I read it four times,” McGhee said. “Everyone should read it.”

She also went to Amsterdam in September to see where the Franks hid, and walked the streets of that neighborhood to “get the atmosphere.”

Besides the 65-voice chorale, the musicians will be only a clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

“It will give that Klezmer sound and the cramped, claustrophobic intimacy of that attic,” she said. “And soprano Sylvia Stoner will sing as the voice of Anne.”

Ronald Perera’s “Golden Door” uses excerpts from immigrants of the 1920s and ’30s. The 10-minute piece is very American, with hints of Bernstein and jazzy rhythms. A flute, viola, bass and some percussion join the previous piece’s quartet.

Charles Davidson’s “Butterfly” uses the Terezin children’s poetry that survivors found later hidden in cracks in the walls and floor, McGhee said. Fourteen members of the Glens Falls Symphony Children’s Choir will join the chorus.

“It’s the first time I’ve worked with them, but I’d heard them before. My socks were knocked off,” she said. “And with kids on the stage singing poetry by kids … it’s about the voices of children and what happens to them. Amazingly, the piece shares a childlike optimism despite the horrific situations,” McGhee said.

The two concerts will also provide McGhee’s swan song. After thinking about it for three years, she said, she decided it was time to do other things.

“I’ve been doing this for 24 years,” she said. “For this concert, I’ve written my last program notes. It’s been especially stressful at holiday times when I’ve been working on the spring concerts. I love what I do, but I want a typical holiday.”

She and her husband plan to travel and visit family. As for the chorale, guest conductors will lead the group for another year before someone is appointed, she said.

Battenkill Chorale

WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College
MORE INFO:; 518-692-7458

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