ALEXANDRA – ‘Defiant Requiem’: survival story through the music of Verdi

‘Defiant Requiem’: survival story through the music of VerdiWhen American symphony conductor Murry Sidlin walked into a used book store in Minneapolis 20 years ago, he found a book that changed his life. Its title was andldquoMusic in Terezin.

andrdquo What Sidlin, the son of Jewish immigrants who lost family in the Holocaust, discovered in that book transformed the next two decades of his career, and culminated in riveting concert presentations all over the US, including at New Yorkand#39s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on March 9Sidlinand#39s andldquoDefiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezinandrdquo at Avery Fisher Hall did exactly what its title suggests: defy the horrific racism and extermination of Jewish prisoners in World War II through music — specifically, through the Christian mass for the dead, Giuseppe Verdiand#39s mighty andldquoRequiemandrdquo for chorus, vocal soloists, and orchestra While that seems like an unlikely pairing of religious traditions, the way in which this great musical score was used to save lives explains it all.Terezin was the Nazi concentration camp 38 miles northwest of Prague which was designed to look like a andldquospa townandrdquo for wealthy educated Jews, and served as a propaganda vehicle from 1941-44 to demonstrate to organizations like the Red Cross how beneficently the Nazi regime was supposedly treating this population.

It was, however, ultimately nothing more than a gateway to the death camp, Auschwitz.The heart of the story is Rafael Schaechter, a Romanian-born Czech conductor, who smuggled the Verdi score into Terezin.

Through his extraordinary efforts (one of which was to convince the Nazis of the value to them of this project), he taught inmates, even though they were dying from exhaustion and starvation, to sing this music, accompanied only by an old piano. Training as many as 150 people to sing this challenging score, Schaechter and his chorus ultimately gave a total of 16 performances of the work, one of which was for the Red Cross entourage, staged by the Nazis to show how elevated a cultural life the inmates had at Terezin.

Sidlin was so inspired by this story that he fashioned a presentation that combined several elements: a film about Terezin (including excerpts from the Nazi propaganda film about the camp) featuring interviews with four survivors, two actors (John Rubinstein and Bebe Neuwirth) reading the words of Schaechter and as a lecturer, a chorus, an orchestra and soloists (soprano Jennifer Check, alto Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor Steven Tharp, and bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer), and an old, out-of-tune piano.The effect, despite some musical mishaps onstage, was as much of an achievement of a critical documentation of 20th century history as it was a chillingly memorable performance of the Verdi andldquoRequiem,andrdquo poignantly imbued for with this particular humanitarian use.

Uneven performanceSidlin, who conducted the performance, alternated the orchestral accompaniment with a ghostly unseen piano accompaniment that took the listener to the way it probably sounded to the prisoner chorus in 1944. On this evening, The Collegiate Chorale, directed by Ted Sperling, delivered the most consistent power and beauty in a generally uneven performance that was unfortunately marred by shockingly out of tune violins in exposed sequences.

Of the four vocal soloists, alto Quintero delivered the textual drama with rich, plummy vocalism, and tenor Tharp sustained the killer high tessitura with skill and aplomb. Bass Schwinghammer found his lyrical center within the andldquoLux Aeterna,andrdquo revealing a warmly communicative singer Soprano Check only managed to stop an unappealing pressure on her sound and finally imbue the andldquoLibera Meandrdquo (Release Me) with tonal allure at the end.

Neuwirth as a lecturer (the film explained that lectures were a prominent feature in the cultural schedule at Terezin) provided warmth and humanity to the factual text, whereas Rubinstein shouted with so much bogus vocal theatricality that Schaechterand#39s words lost any intimacy and nuance.The andldquoAgnus Deiandrdquo (andlsquoLamb of Godand#39 section of the Requiem mass) became a double entendre, as the onstage chorus sang it simultaneously with the prisoner chorus performing in the Nazi film The unmistakable conflation of this with the proverbial andldquolamb to the slaughterandrdquo was perhaps the most moving sequence in Sidlinand#39s template — one that needed a second or two more of time for the audience to process rather than having Rubinsteinand#39s unnecessarily aggressive interruption of that tender moment.

A survivorsand#39 taleTerezin processed over 140,000 prisoners 35,000 died there and 87,000 were shipped to death camps. The few living survivors speaking in the film unanimously praised the sentiments of the Latin mass text as much as the many dramatic and descriptive melodies as being responsible for saving their souls and their lives.

andldquoThis music was never sung before in a place like this,andrdquo said one survivor andldquoRafi [Schaechter] was a crazed man on a mission. Listening to and performing this music was as much a necessity as running to grab a piece of bread,andrdquo said another andldquoWe only had a piano they had to imagine the orchestraandrdquo One survivorand#39s statement was heartbreaking: andldquo[Despite our prayers to the contrary] The Red Cross didnand#39t get it.

andrdquoEdgar Krasa, another survivor now in his 90s and living in the US, was the roommate of Schaechter at Terezin. andldquoHe was my hero.

His vision was to make the lives of every prisoner more bearable,andrdquo Krasa recalled to a Boston Globe journalist last year andldquoWe were hungry, we were tired, we were sick. But we had something to live for,andrdquo said Krasa in the book, andldquoThe Music Man of Terezin,andrdquo by Susie Davidson.

andldquoIf the Nazis had realized what the lyrics were about, they could be deported,andrdquo Davidson quoted Krasa andldquoBut nobody left. We sang those verses.

It was the only way we could achieve victory.andrdquoAt the end of the performance was a moment of silence to remember Schaechter and his chorus.

Seen and heard in this format, andldquoDefiant Requiemandrdquo through the lens of Verdiand#39s music is a survivorsand#39 tale that cannot be forgotten.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman