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‘Defiant Requiem’ undermines musical hope of Holocaust horrors

You can’t believe everything you read these days, but sometimes you have to get yourself out of your doubts.

Case in point: there’s this clip circulating online, one of the particularly harrowing new subgenres of people on the street videos, in which young people on college campuses or at political rallies are approached by interviewers and their asked what they know about the Holocaust.

I would like not to fall into deep despair as I go into detail about the wide range of unintentionally disturbing responses, but let’s just say that the consensus of this selectively edited sample of young Americans was “not much.”

The rise of disinformation, the collapse of our educational system, the persistent thrust of revisionism and the general destabilization of facts are all factors that contribute to a growing and worrying collective ignorance of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, even as survivors walk among us.

But the main challenge to keeping the Holocaust in the public consciousness is not just how to do it, but what form those memories should take.

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A potential solution can be seen in “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín,” which arrives at Strathmore Music Center on April 20 for its 20th anniversary.

The elaborate stage show combines an orchestra and choir with a large multimedia component. It aims, through an enhanced recreation, to tell the story of a choir of prisoners from the Theresienstadt concentration camp – alias Terezín – who, between September 1943 and June 1944, learned Verdi’s “Requiem” by heart and performed it 16 times. Sections of the “Requiem” are interspersed with historical footage, survivor testimonies and narration.

For the Strathmore concert, the Orchestra of Terezín Remembrance will be joined by members of regional ensembles, including the American University Chamber Singers, the Catholic University of America Verdi Choir, the Longwood University Camerata & Chamber Singers, the University of Virginia Chamber Singers, the Virginia Commonwealth University Commonwealth Singers and the Virginia State University Concert Choir. Featured singers will include soprano Jennifer Check, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor Cooper Nolan and bass-baritone Nathan Stark.

“Defying Requiem” is the brainchild of Murry Sidlin, 81, a conductor and educator who began his career with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and as Resident Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. For eight years he was resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, and from 2002 to 2010 served as dean of the School of Music at Catholic University, where he now teaches contemporary music. of the Holocaust as well as conducting.

Since its premiere in Portland, Oregon, in 2002, “Defiant Requiem” has been performed more than 40 times around the world, including in Terezín in 2006. It has inspired a documentary, talks and educational initiative, and led to the creation of Sidlin. of the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which, according to its vision statement, “strives to promote awareness and understanding of the dangers of anti-Semitism, ignorance and Holocaust denial” through arts and music.

Sidlin was struck with inspiration after coming across Joza Karas’ 1985 book “Music at Terezín: 1941-1945” in a Minneapolis bookstore. He said in a recent phone interview that he stood on the street and read the whole chapter about Bucharest-born conductor Rafael Schächter. Sidlin couldn’t understand his last paragraph – that Schächter taught and led a chorus of starving prisoners in 16 full performances of the “Requiem”.

“Absurdity. … It is not possible”, Sidlin remembers thinking. “If it’s a concentration camp, then it has the amenities of a concentration camp: no food, nothing nutritious, no medical care, no protection from the elements.”

Sidlin became obsessed with determining the veracity of the story – if true, it needed to be told; if it is false, it is propaganda that must be suppressed.

While teaching at the University of the Pacific in Oregon in 2001, Sidlin contacted two Holocaust scholars on campus, who inspired a wave of (early) Internet research, gathering message boards and newsgroups for anyone who could provide more performance details. An anonymous response (Sidlin could only determine that it was from Israel) came with a single question: “Why do you want them?” »

Advised to make his intentions clear – which at this point, were singularly concerned with the truth of the story – Sidlin explained his interest. Another email arrived weeks later, this time from Schächter’s niece, who confirmed the story.

From there, Sidlin’s fascination with the details behind Schächter’s effort grew – the grim conditions faced by the prisoners; the seemingly impossible process of training up to 150 singers (men one night, women the next) in clandestine rehearsals; the commander’s cynical tolerance, which allowed outbreaks of intellectual activity to spread through the camp in order to distract the prisoners’ minds from their suffering.

But what inspired Sidlin most was the gesture of hope represented by such an undertaking under such difficult conditions. It was not just hope against the unknown, but also against the ongoing horrors of the camp.

The choir was working on the single score of the “Requiem” that Schächter had brought to Terezín. (He took that and Bedrich Smetana’s “The Swapped Bride.”) They gathered around a single broken piano to learn the parts, breaking into small groups at night to practice.

Their numbers steadily dwindled as some prisoners were expelled and new ones arrived. At the final performance, given in front of an audience of SS officers and a Red Cross delegation in June 1944, there were only 60 singers left. Rafael Krasa, son of Terezín survivor Edgar Krasa (1924-2017) and namesake of Schächter, will also join the performance in Strathmore.

Holocaust survivor Fred Terna, 98, clearly remembers his experience in Terezín, attending multiple performances of “Requiem”. He recalled the fortified camp retaining the shape of a city – with barbershops and businesses, an illusion of self-reliance suspended in an air of chaos. Terna was an itinerant worker, repairing drainage systems, digging ditches and enjoying the limited freedom he had.

“We never knew overnight what was going to happen,” Terna said in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn. “But because of the constant contact required by the situation, there was a strange slave-master relationship. The guards were lower-class people, but the prisoners of Terezín, on the whole, were educated and knowledgeable. We knew who they were, they didn’t know us.

Terna, a New York-based artist with work at the Smithsonian, the Albertina Collection in Vienna and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, grew up in Prague after his family moved from Vienna. He developed a love of music by learning the operas his grandparents sang around the two pianos in their house.

He was 20 when he was sent to Terezín in 1942. He remembers hearing a friend of a friend of a friend, the famous bass Karel Berman, in one of the last performances of the “Requiem”, singing accompanied by the struggling piano. He heard three full performances of Verdi’s piece, but remembers most marveling at the sight of the singers all together in one room – small groups of the band taking the parts they knew best, the performance she -even a demonstration of their determination.

“Schächter was perhaps aware that our main weapon against the Nazis was art and intellectual activity,” says Terna, who also found himself associating with poets such as George Kafka and Zdeněk Jelínek in Terezín. “We knew what we were doing, but not its cultural significance.”

“Defiant Requiem” carried a message of hope against the horrific conditions, but his challenge was not embraced by everyone who stood in Terezín. In fact, Jewish community elders saw nothing but problems with the idea of ​​the show. (“Do you know how they’re going to fix this?” Sidlin imagines the warning from the Orthodox rabbis. “They’re going to shoot you. You don’t want to do this.”) Adding to their dismay was the idea of ​​using a Catholic mass devout as a vessel for the fate of their people.

“In defense of the ‘Requiem’ at Terezín,” Sidlin said, “[Schächter]The idea was that the meaning of any great work of art is never limited to its original intent, and that’s, I think, what drove him.

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Echoes of these criticisms have also dragged the “Requiem” to its current iteration in some quarters of the Jewish community. There seems to be a consensus that the history of the singers of Terezín deserves to be examined, preserved and cherished. But its transformation into what one reviewer called a “virtual multimedia extravaganza” rubbed some the wrong way.

In a 2011 article, Simon Wynberg called the production “manipulative and (perhaps inadvertently) dishonest”. “As intelligent, compassionate beings, are our imaginations so exhausted that we need an extrinsic narrative of prose and imagery to appreciate the extraordinarily evil circumstances of the Terezín concerts?”

And a 2013 essay by James Loeffler criticized “Defiant Requiem” as a “tragically misguided” twist on Holocaust history that risks turning Jewish composers “into shadow images defined only by their status as victims of the Holocaust.” ‘Hitler’.

Sidlin accepts the criticism, but claims that although he has become a scholar on Terezín, he is not a scholar. The most important thing, he says, is that the memory of Terezín lives on, and if he can do that through beauty, so much the better.

“Let me tell you this way,” he said. “Those who think it’s not scholarly enough, maybe they’re right, I don’t know. Does not matter to me.

“What matters to me is that Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ touches people in ways they never dreamed of. These people, dedicated to beauty, to genius, to strength, coming together every night to learn one of the greatest and most demanding compositions in the service of humanity. It is the miracle. It is the best of humanity.

Defiant Requiem: Verdi in Terezin 20th Anniversary Show April 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Center in Strathmore.

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