Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, with the PSO

Rafael Schächter, organizer and conductor of 16 performances of Verdi's Requiem
at the Terezín concentration camp, 1942-1944.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Poster created by GUT Instinct Creative.
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.

Verdi photographed by Giulio Rossi in 1874,
the year of the Requiem’s first performance.
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.

Murry Sidlin.
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.

The effect of this, with the piano part devotedly played offstage by Rita Sloan, was for the performance to pass repeatedly from an echo of how it must have been in their squalid conditions at the camp to the ideal—as one of the survivors recalled Schächter saying to them—of how they would eventually sing it, back in their native Prague with a full symphony orchestra. As one tragedy within the incalculably greater one that was the Holocaust, this was never to be.

The continuation of the Requiem aeternam from measure 56 through to the movement’s conclusion introduced for the first time the solo quartet: Aga Mikolaj (soprano), Ann McMahon Quintero (mezzo-soprano), Edgaras Montvidas (tenor), and Nathan Stark (bass-baritone). The Requiem has often been called “Verdi’s best opera”, with extensive solos for each, duets, trios, and quartets with and without the chorus. All four were thoroughly on top of their richly expressive and yes, operatic, parts, singly and collectively, but without drawing undue attention as might have happened with more “starry” soloists.

l-r: Aga Mikolaj, Ann McMahon Quintero, Murry Sidlin, Edgaras Montvidas, Nathan Stark.

“We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them...” Of no section of the Requiem could this have been more true than the cataclysmic Dies irae, the first of nine sub-sections of Verdi’s mighty Sequence which, through to its closing Lacrymosa, comprises in total nearly half of the whole work. Maestro Sidlin played the Sequence without interruption for commentary, setting off with a whiplash attack on the Dies irae characterized—as was the entire performance—by fervent, committed, singing and playing from the Pacific Chorale and the PSO.

Though the whole event ran through its two hours’ total without an interval, the end of the Sequence marked the mid-point just as it does in “straight” performances of the Verdi Requiem. From here on, between the final five movements, the narrative centered on the circumstances of the last of Schächter’s 16 performances. In June 1944 a delegation from the International Red Cross visited Terezín to inspect conditions.

The only known photograph of Terezín inmates singing the Requiem, taken during the final performance on June 23, 1944.

The Nazis hastily smartened up the camp to give a good impression, and among other cultural activities for the benefit of the visit, Schächter and his chorus were made to give what would be the final performance of the Requiem to an audience of the visitors and Nazi hosts. What rendered this even more appallingly poignant was that his original chorus had been repeatedly decimated by deportations to Auschwitz, so that despite new recruiting, there were not many more than half the original number of choristers remaining.

A couple of months after the Red Cross visit, a propaganda film was made, showing carefully selected “humane” aspects of Terezín. The last three movements, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna and Libera me, interspersed with final interview clips of the three survivors, were accompanied first by some of this fake propaganda footage, showing apparently contented inmates, adults and children alike. Then, as Verdi’s great work wound to its close this was replaced by other silent footage—prisoners crowded into trucks, doors closed on haunted faces, the trains steaming away, carrying them to their deaths.

The soprano and mezzo-soprano duet in the Agnus Dei,
beneath footage from the Nazi propaganda film.

The Defiant Requiem Foundation is in no position to maintain a chorus and full orchestra to travel to the many venues that continue to host performances, so perforce the performers in each case are local, as with the Pacific Chorale and PCO at Costa Mesa. The benefit surely is that they come as fresh, if not to the Verdi itself then to the “concert drama” and its power, as the audience, and several choir members reported having been in tears when rehearsing and by the end of the evening itself.

The last long-held Libera me faded away, chorus and orchestra slowly filed off into the wings followed by the soloists and Maestro Sidlin, and Dennis Kim was left seated alone on the bare, darkened platform playing a Jewish melody. Then he, too, departed. No applause. The audience got up and left in silence, reflecting perhaps on the pitiless fate of Rafael Schächter, the architect of all that noble, sung defiance. With the remainder of his chorus, he was sent to Auschwitz, and though he survived the camp, he died on one of the death marches as those prisoners still left alive were moved from location to location in advance of the liberating armies. He was 39. 


“Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín,” Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Pacific Chorale, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Tuesday, April 16, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Rafael Schächter: DW–Made for Minds; Poster and Schächter performance: The Defiant Requiem Foundation; The performers: Courtesy Pacific Symphony; Verdi: Composer website.

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