January 30, 2017
Jews who sang to defy the Nazis are recalled in a UK premiere at Durham Cathedral
Tony Harrington, director of The Forge, left, with conductor Murry Sidlin
Tony Harrington, director of The Forge, left, with conductor Murry Sidlin

Durham Cathedral has played host to many moving occasions over the years – the centuries even – but Saturday will see one that promises to be among the most poignant in living memory.

The likelihood is that it will be both sad and beautiful, as any commemorative performance should be.

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin follows Holocaust Memorial Day but keeps the focus on the millions who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.

It consists of a full performance of Verdi’s Requiem combined with elements of drama, video interviews with Holocaust survivors and Nazi propaganda footage.

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin commemorates the victims of the Terezin concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia where tens of thousands died during the Second World War and many others were held before being transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz or Treblinka.

In particular audiences are asked to remember those camp inmates who gave 16 performances of Verdi’s Requiem at Terezin in defiance of their captors.

The man responsible for those performances was Raphael Schächter, a young conductor who had been deported to Terezin from Prague.

From a single score smuggled into the camp, Schächter taught 150 prisoners to perform the piece.

It helped to keep the human spirit alive in conditions that are barely imaginable today.

Sadly, gaps in the ranks of the Terezin chorus had to be filled as singers died or were transported to an even worse place.

Schächter didn’t survive the war, dying in 1945 after being transported to Auschwitz, but he is remembered for leading an act of “creative defiance” against the Nazis.

Those are the words of Murry Sidlin, founder and president of The Defiant Requiem Foundation, who has worked tirelessly to keep alive the memory of all the creative people who suffered at Terezin.

The American conductor has been in Durham this week and will be on the podium to deliver the 36th performance – and the first in this country – of Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin.

It will be performed by Durham Choral Society and Durham University Chamber Choir & Orchestral Society with actress Jane Arnfield as narrator, Ali Pritchard, artistic director of Alphabetti Theatre, as Rafael Schächter, and soloists Linda Richardson (soprano), Alison Kettlewell (mezzo), Philip Sheffield (tenor) and Keel Watson (bass-baritone).

Earlier this week, casting an appreciative eye over Durham Cathedral, Murry Sidlin said: “I’ve watched a couple of documentaries about it recently and they were beautiful and inspiring but it’s like anything else... until you experience it you don’t get that sense of amazing spirituality and humility that comes over you.”

Asked about the background to this multi-media work, Murry began at the beginning with Verdi’s Requiem of 1874.

He said that although it was a musical setting of the Catholic mass, it wasn’t usually used in a religious context.

“But what happened in the 1930s was that Raphael Schächter, who was originally from Romania, came to study music in Czechoslovakia.

“He came across the Verdi Requiem and fell in love with it, as everyone does.”

In the run-up to the Second World War, Schächter, like other Jews, was prevented from working and eventually sent to Terezin.

Murry said Schächter’s performances of the Requiem, with prisoners gathered around an old piano, lifted the spirits of the inmates.

“They lived in filth, they had two cups of gruel a day that may or may not have had a little bit of potato in it.

“The big killer was malnutrition and I know that because I’ve heard it from Edgar Krasa who was a bunk mate of Schächter in Terezin. They had a hovel that they lived in.

“Schächter was about 15 years older but he noticed Edgar had a deep bass voice and he recruited him for the chorus straight away.”

Murry said Edgar now lives in Massachusetts and has spent much of his life educating young people about the Holocaust. “He lost his wife recently but he rallied and is doing fine.”

Murry said the text of Verdi’s Requiem, with relatively few references to Christian doctrine, “inspired the singers and their audiences in ways that went beyond the spiritual. It was a way of saying to the Nazis that their day would come.

“Dies Irae means Day of Wrath. To those singers it represented what would happen when the time came for the Nazis to be judged.”

According to Murry, Raphael Schächter told his singers: “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

And the singing goes on. Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin was premiered in Portland, Oregon, in 2002. Six years later Murry set up The Defiant Requiem Foundation which, as well as the musical performance, has also spawned a film about Schächter and his extraordinary concerts.

The UK premiere results from a collaboration with The Forge, an Arts Council-funded organisation based in Stanley, County Durham, which develops arts projects with schools, universities and others to improve the prospects of young people.

Director Tony Harrington said: “The Forge has a reputation for bringing internationally renowned work to County Durham along with its learning and outreach work with schools across the North East.”

Adding that he was delighted to be working with The Defiant Requiem Foundation, he said: “The work is a testament to humankind’s ability to find hope and inspiration during the darkest of times.”

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin is at Durham Cathedral on Saturday, January 28 at 7.30pm. Tickets from the Gala Theatre box office: tel. 03000 266600 or www.galadurham.co.uk

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