The New York Times: A Crushed Spirit, Healed by the Whispers of Angels

October 17, 2013

“Angel Heart” was conceived by Luna Pearl Woolf and Lisa Delan.


“Do you hear it?”
At the beginning, there is only the voice of Jeremy Irons. Then, the sound of strings: high, sparkling filaments of sound that dance around the narrator’s voice like dust particles catching the light.

There is a whispering of wings in the silence of the night.

They’re coming. With feathers as white as snow and faces as bright as the moonlight:


“Angel Heart” is a tender and emotionally astute children’s story told in words and music. Last month it was released as an audiobook CD; on Monday it will be performed live at Zankel Hall with the actor Chris Noth as narrator. The text is by Cornelia Funke, the best-selling author of children’s books including the “Inkheart” trilogy and the “MirrorWorld” novels. Mirada, the multimedia storytelling company founded by the director Guillermo del Toro, the cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, the producer Javier Jimenez and the director Mathew Cullen, will bring out a related app in early 2014.

But in its original audio format, “Angel Heart” (Oxingale Records) is a story designed to enter the mind via the ear, bypassing text and image to slip straight into the imagination of a young mind on the threshold of sleep. Weaving in familiar songs from far-flung corners of the earth into a tale of grief and healing, it has both the simplicity and the dark undertow of a fairy tale.

The story follows a young girl whose heart — we don’t know why — is “broken into a thousand pieces.” An angel finds her weeping bitterly by the side of a pond and guides her on a journey on which they encounter a number of fantastical creatures. At the end of a night of travel to the four points of the compass, the girl’s heart is mended; she has learned to remember and to forget, to be strong and to dare to love again. The angel’s work is done.

The idea for the project originated with the Montreal-based composer Luna Pearl Woolf and the soprano Lisa Delan, who is also featured as one of the singers on the recording. The cast on the CD includes other leading figures from the world of classical music: the mezzo-sopranos Frederica von Stade and Zheng Cao (who died in February); the countertenor Daniel Taylor; the baritone Sanford Sylvan; the all-cello ensemble Uccello, led by Matt Haimovitz; and the mandolinists Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall. The sound world they create in sensitive arrangements of lullabies and songs and original compositions by Ms. Woolf combines the comforting familiarity of folk song with the rich timbres and textures of classical music.

As a children’s story told through classical music, “Angel Heart” fits into the tradition of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” But Ms. Woolf’s atmospheric music serves a different purpose: in place of the narrative drama of Prokofiev’s work, her compositions add psychological nuances and emotional depth through ever-changing textures. The eight-member cello ensemble produces a dazzling variety of sounds, from the rich and earthy to the ethereal, while Mr. Haimovitz’s lush solos evoke the girl’s heartache and yearning.

“It’s so subtle yet so visual,” Ms. Funke said of Ms. Woolf’s music. “I had tears in my eyes when I heard it.”

Ms. Funke, who is German and lives in Los Angeles, said the invitation to create a story linking the songs was “like somebody placing a magical thing on my doorstep.” It also brought new challenges: “Angel Heart” is her first book for young children and the first she wrote in a language other than her mother tongue.

“I wanted every word to be right for the music,” she said. “It was the first time I wrote in English — so when Jeremy Irons read it without complaining, I was very happy.”

Angel Heart, a music storybook

Angel Heart, a music storybook

Ms. Woolf, who is the mother of two daughters ages 3 and 6, said the project grew out of what she saw as a gap in the market. “We didn’t see music for kids that embraced what we love about classical music — the fact that it can tell a story in just the music, the fact that there can be voices of this kind of quality that are still soothing,” she said.

Ms. Woolf said that what touched her most in Ms. Funke’s story was “the idea that you can heal by reclaiming your innocence, the self-confidence you had when you don’t know any different.”

“Watching my kids grow,” she said, “I see that as something that has to be treasured.”

Although “Angel Heart” is marketed as a bedtime story for young children, its allegorical quality makes it suited for all ages. Much is left unsaid in the story, including the cause of the girl’s heartache. Ms. Funke said the nature of some of the songs Ms. Woolf gave her to work with suggested romantic love. In “Angel Heart,” much of the poignancy comes from the way the themes of romantic and maternal love weave in and out.

“The ability of younger children to understand eternal truths and raw emotions without intellectualizing them is quite amazing,” Ms. Funke said. “If you say to a small child, here is a girl and her heart is shattered in pieces, they get it. Many of them get the concept of romantic love. They watch their parents, wondering, do they love each other? They already know the fear of divorce. They understand so much more about grown-ups than we think.”

“Angel Heart” will be performed in concert at Zankel Hall on Monday;


Read at: The New York Times

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