‘Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín’ at Strathmore
“Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín” is never just a concert, a performance, a presentation of a masterpiece. The multimedia concert-drama, which has been presented many times, most recently at the Music Center at Strathmore on May 1, has always been something more, larger and larger still.
But it is also something as troubling and always evocable and intimate as the remembrance of the heart and mind of a people straining with music to be free in the midst of constant death.
The concert, as well as a documentary film of the same name, has been performed all over the world, and will continue to be performed. It is at heart the resurrection of what was an obscure but heart-rending and powerful story from the annals of the Holocaust, which hardly lacks for unique and powerful stories.
For Murry Sidlin, the founder and creator of “Defiant Requiem,” the Baltimore-born conductor and music educator at Catholic University in Washington, the story, the music, the concert has become a life’s mission. This mission has resulted in the creation of the D.C.-based Defiant Requiem Foundation and the telling and retelling and resurrection of a story of great courage and the indomitable spirit of one man.
For Sildin, it began on a sunny day in the late 1990s, when he was a faculty member of the University of Minnesota’s school of music. He ran across a used bookstore, the kind that you always saw in cities and universities in America. “There was a bin, a cart outside,” he said. “I stuck my hand in and pulled out a book, an old book.”
The book was “Music in Terezín”, by Joza Karas, a Czech writer and composer who had collected the music of Jews imprisoned at Terezín, a Nazi camp in Czechoslavakia, where thousands were killed and from which thousands more were sent to Auschwitz.
“I had picked the book out of sheer luck,” Sidlin said. “I opened it up and there was a chapter on a man called Rafael Schächter.”
“He was a composer, he was an opera coach,” Sidlin said. A Czech Jew, he had been rounded up and sent to Terezín carrying a lone, shopworn copy of the music of Verdi’s Requiem inside his coat.
Terezín in popular accounts is known as the camp which the Nazis tried to pass off as a model camp, to show Red Cross members and other inspectors that Jews were being treated well.
“That’s not exactly right,” Sidlin said. “They did that once, when the Red Cross came and it was then that Schächter, with 200 members of the camp, put on a recital of the Requiem in front of the Red Cross and the Nazis.”
“For those in the chorus – they were accompanied by a three-legged piano – it was an act of defiance, an act of courage. Schächter had them rehearse after every day of hard labor and impossible conditions in the basements of the camp,” Sidlin said.
“But the camp already had a lively culture – here were writers, singers, artists, professors, directors, composers, musicians from all over Europe, and there were lectures, cabaret music and singing, plays, operas, put on after the day was done. And Schächter was at the heart of it. He held 14 performances with 150 singers at the camp for the other prisoners.”
“The book and the story moved me in ways that I can’t begin to describe,” he said. “I wanted that story to be told and sung, and to be remembered. That’s what I’m doing, that’s what everybody that’s involved is doing.”
The result, in the end, was a foundation, the Defiant Requiem Foundation, with Sidlin as its president and Stuart E. Eizenstat as its current chairman. In turn, the foundation sponsors the Rafael Schächter Institute for Arts & Humanities. Next month, for the first time, the Institute will be held in the U.S., at American University’s Katzen Arts Center.
At Strathmore, 50 survivors of the Holocaust attended, including Edgar Krasa and Marianka May, who were members of Schächter’s Terezín chorus. Soloists including Arianna Zukerman (the daughter of Pinchas Zukerman), mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor Issachah Savage and bass Nathan Stark. D.C.-area theater star Rick Foucheux appeared as Schächter, with Rheda Becker, who often performs speaking roles with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as the Lecturer.
Interspersed there were clips from the “Defiant Requiem” film, as well as clips from a Nazi propaganda film.
Schächter himself was sent to Auschwitz, where he survived until the remaining prisoners were sent on a death march, in which he perished. The Strathmore concert was performed in memory of Fran Eizenstat and Amy Antonelli.
There will be a screening of the “Defiant Requiem” documentary as part of the Schächter Institute, June 8 to 12 at the Katzen Arts Center, with a book signing by Richard Breitman for his book “FDR and the Jews,” Phillip and Noreen Silver performing works by Terezín composers on piano and cello, a one-woman show “The Tin Ring” and a panel discussion led by Eizenstat on “Anti-Semitism in Europe Today.”