Anne Frank oratorio at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts
The Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles — which is mostly Latino, Black and Asian — might seem an odd place to find a cultural experience with Jewish overtones. But this week, the public school’s students will be raising their voices in song for a special performance with the Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC) that will see them bring to life the story of Anne Frank in an oratorio they’ve written and composed.
The Jan. 22 and 23 performances are part of LAMC’s educational outreach program Voices Within, founded by former LAMC member Marnie Mosiman a little more than a decade ago. The program, which was originally designed for fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, sends professional composers, lyricists, singers and musicians from the master chorale to schools around the city to help students learn about composing music.
“Voices Within is a study in collaboration,” said Alice Murray, who has been a member of the LAMC for nearly 16 years. “We just happen to use songwriting as a tool, but it’s mostly about teaching students to honor each other’s ideas, to be spontaneous.”
Murray and lyricist Doug Cooney have been working with this year’s students on the Anne Frank oratorio, and said the focus on Anne Frank, the famous Dutch diarist who died during the Holocaust, is something they’d been considering for a while. (Past subjects include Gilgamesh and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.)
“This year at the master chorale is a year of passions,” Murray said, and as a result, the Anne Frank piece has been titled “The Passion of Anne Frank.” The title may bring cringes to the faces of some Jews who are not particularly fond of Passion pieces — traditionally works based on the gospel story of the Passion — considering their history of being used to whip up anti-Semitism, but no offense is intended. The piece is a passion more in its musical form than content, though the suffering of Anne Frank will in many ways resonate with the suffering of Jesus for Christian viewers and students.
Desiree Fowler, who has taught in the school’s music department since its founding, said doing works that highlight different backgrounds is important to the school. “Within the fives years that we have done this project, we’ve hit all different types of cultures and time periods … to sort of reflect the diversity of our school.”
Fowler, who describes her job as “tricking kids into falling in love with music,” said Voices Within has been a huge help to her as a teacher. “It’s approached music more like a language,” Fowler said. “I’ve seen for five years now how successful it is.”
Students participate in every aspect of the production, from writing to performing. “They get access to what they’re supposed to sound like, how they’re supposed to behave, how seriously they’re supposed to take their role in a choir,” Fowler said.
She works with the beginner choral students, and said for many of them, getting hooked on singing or composing can be a challenge. “I might have an 11th-grader in that class who’s been in orchestra for six years of their life … and then I have people that don’t necessarily even want to sing.”
Voices Within has helped many of those shy students open up.
“It’s one of the best things that we could do for our choral department,” Fowler said. “I’ve had students say, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’ ”
Sophomore Eileen Garrido, who will be playing the role of Anne Frank in the oratorio, agrees. “It’s just an honor to be playing Anne Frank. She is my role model. I’ve loved Anne Frank ever since I was in sixth grade.”
Garrido, too, knows a thing or two about suffering.
“I was born with a very serious heart condition known as Tetralogy of Fallot, and because of this condition, I’ve had to receive three major open-heart surgeries at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles,” Garrido said. She and her parents started a foundation to raise money for Children’s Hospital called the Beating Hearts Foundation (beatinghearts.org), which has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help support care for other pediatric heart patients.
Garrido has been singing since the age of 7, and describes the experience with Voices Within as one she’ll never forget. “It has been an amazing experience. Everyone from the LAMC is so nice. They’re so open to brand-new ideas.”
Murray said that’s what Voices Within is all about — exposing students to a new and exciting experience. “You have to talk the students into being playful and spontaneous,” Murray said. “That is the challenge … giving them license to not judge themselves or others.”
“It really is their words on the page,” Murray said. “We give them the structure, we give them the form.”
Garrido, for one, is excited to see her work performed live, and to sing onstage with the octet from the master chorale, which will be singing with her and the other student soloists and choir members. “I always do have a little bit of jitters … but mostly I just go up there to have fun.”
Garrido hopes that people will come out to see the show. “It’s going to give you a different perspective of what Anne Frank went through,” she said. “I know in rehearsals I get teared-up sometimes.”
“She was really a little hero hiding in the darkness,” she added. “It’ll just make you be more appreciative of what you have today.”
The Passion of Anne Frank will be performed Jan. 22 at noon and Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. at Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. Both performances are free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Visit lamc.org for details.