Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, with the PSO
Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
DAVID J BROWN
To quote directly from the history of The Defiant Requiem on its website:
“The story ofDefiant Requiem began in Minneapolis, MN in the mid-1990s when noted conductor and educator Murry Sidlin, then on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, happened upon a book entitled Music in Terezín, 1941-1945 by Joža Karas. The book was stacked among many others in a sidewalk sale of used and out-of-print titles, and Maestro Sidlin opened to a short chapter about a man named Rafael Schächter.”
The rest, one might say, is history, and in more ways than one. The passage of time inevitably imposes distance between past events and the present, and brings with it the dangers of blurring, distortion, misinterpretation and, worst of all, denial of those events. However, it also can bring understanding, remembrance, honoring, and perhaps most important when those events were monstrous, a sustained determination that they should never again be emulated or repeated.
Terezín, or Theresienstadt, was a concentration camp established by the Nazis in 1941 as a holding-place for Jews before being sent on to their murders at Auschwitz and elsewhere. But it was also conceived as a propaganda tool, a seemingly self-governed Jewish community supposedly run on humane lines, where education and cultural activities were encouraged. Music was a particular focus of activity at Terezín as many Jewish composers and performers were interned there, among them the young Czech composer, pianist and conductor, Rafael Schächter.
It was the series of no fewer than 16 performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, composed 1868-1873, under Schächter’s direction at Terezín between 1942-1944 that caught Maestro Sidlin’s imagination and eventually altered the course of his life, leading him first to learn more about Schächter and the performances, then to seek out survivors’ eye-witness testimony, and finally to create the multi-media “concert-drama” Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, first performed in 2002, which reached the Segerstrom Concert Hall this month.
Sidlin’s dramatic concept successfully walks the fine line between being true to the great masterpiece that so inspired Schächter by performing it complete, and surrounding it with visual and aural connective tissue that vividly tells the nature and circumstances of those performances three-quarters of a century ago. In addition, by the end the whole experience delivers a sledgehammer emotional impact quite aside from that of Verdi's music per se.
Video recordings of three surviving Terezín chorus-members, Edgar Krasa, Vera Schiff and Marianka Zadikow-May, projected on the big screen above the Pacific Chorale and the PSO, opened the evening and appeared later between some of the Requiem’s movements. After the first video, concertmaster Dennis Kim played part of the great Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin BWV 1004, and this led in to Maestro Sidlin’s scene-setting introduction from the rostrum.
A collage of sounds followed, representing Terezín’s teeming musical activity, to be suddenly broken off by a piercing whistle, and then the opening of the first movement, Requiem aeternam, on muted strings, with the chorus sotto voce. Sidlin drew this to a halt at measure 56 of the score, and picked up the microphone to speak again about Schächter’s character and charisma, his drive, and his motivation in mounting the work. From this point on, actors John Rubinstein and David Prather—playing, respectively, Schächter himself and a commenting “Lecturer” on spotlit podia set back left and right in the orchestra—added dramatic intensification to the documentary aspect.
All Schächter had to work with was a single vocal score of the Requiem, and the use of a damaged piano in the basement of the men’s barracks housing where he rehearsed, teaching the work by rote to his 150 singers. One of the most telling features of Sidlin’s concept was, from this point on, to introduce and conclude each section of the Requiem with just a piano playing the accompaniment, the orchestra being cued a few measures in and then giving way again to the piano shortly before the end of the movement.
Read the entire review at this link.