Saturday 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day, we had the great privilege to be part of the audience at Christchurch for the Chelmsford Singers’ concert, commemorating this solemn and important day.

Under the direction of James Davy, the singers gave a powerful rendition of ‘Annelies’ by James Whitbourn. This 75-minute choral work for soprano soloist, choir and four instrumentalists (Elizabeth Drew, Marianne Olyver, David Burrowes and Tim Carey) has a libretto compiled from the Diary of Anne Frank. Soprano soloist, Samantha Hay, beautifully sang the poignant extracts from the diary with the choir bringing dramatic life to the tragic story of this remarkable teenager’s last years hiding in the secret annex. One memorable line, ‘One day this terrible war will be over, and we will be people again, and not just Jews,’ was written only a few months before her capture and murder by the Nazis. The energy, focus and clear articulation of the singers, combined with both dissonant and warm harmonies of the music, made this moment starkly moving and potent. The reaction of the audience at the end of the piece spoke volumes as to the impact of the evening – complete silence followed by rapturous applause.

‘Annelies’ was the culmination of an extraordinary programme, the first half consisting of works created during the Holocaust: three motets by Hugo Distler, who took his own life in 1942 in response to the horrors of the Nazi regime, and four movements from Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, which was composed in a Nazi prisoner of war camp in 1941. The Distler was performed by the choir unaccompanied and set the tone of the evening with haunting and beautiful harmonies. The choir’s ability to create such a gentle and mournful sound was mesmerizing, particularly in ‘Selig sind die Toten’ (Blessed are the dead).

The Messiaen, a most unusual and challenging piece, was helpfully introduced by clarinetist Elizabeth Drew, making the following astonishing performance both accessible and captivating. The clarinet solo combined incredible mastery of technique with great sensitivity and power. The control of breath caused the audience to hold theirs in sympathy – it was one of the most remarkable clarinet performances we have ever experienced. The final movement, a violin solo of immense difficulty and intense beauty, was performed with such energy, enthusiasm and feeling by Marianne Olyver, that it made the perfect end to a thrilling first half.

This exceptional evening was introduced and carried so sensitively and appropriately by James Davy, allowing the audience to experience both deep reflection and express strong appreciation for this most fitting memorial. It was notable how much discussion and strength of feeling was expressed by the audience in the wake of the concert – many chose not to rise from their seats for some time and instead either sat in contemplation or talked at length with their partners about what they had just witnessed.

We both feel moved now to go and re-read The Diary of Anne Frank…and practise our instruments!

Charlotte Jones and Eve Starr