ArtsATL > Music > Review: ASO’s emotional “Defiant Requiem” honors Holocaust victims at Terezín

Review: ASO’s emotional “Defiant Requiem” honors Holocaust victims at Terezín

Murry Sidlin conducts his "Defiant Requiem" Thursday evening.

The Anti-Defamation League held its 2012 Community of Respect Reception and Concert on Thursday at Symphony Hall. The well-attended reception, held in the Galleria, honored community leaders Linda Selig and Ben Johnson. Selig was honored with the Abe Goldstein Human Relations Award and Johnson with the Stuart Lewengrub Torch of Liberty Award.

The unique, sold-out performance that followed was “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín,” a cooperative presentation by the league and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in partnership with the Defiant Requiem Foundation.

The “Defiant Requiem” was conceived and created by conductor Murry Sidlin 20 years ago, after he discovered the story of Czechoslovakian composer, pianist and conductor Rafael Schächter, who was imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp during World War II. Sidlin’s piece tells the story of the artists and intellectuals whose creativity miraculously survived in Terezín’s harsh conditions, in particular the chorus of 150 voices whom Schächter rehearsed and taught Verdi’s Requiem entirely by rote, as there was only one copy of the vocal score available. The work was performed 16 times, the final time to visiting representatives of the Red Cross, whose inspection was closely escorted by the Nazi SS. Schächter was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 and died there the next year.

Using narration, film and photographs throughout, Sidlin has built a compelling narrative around the music of Verdi’s Requiem, including words written by Schächter, which were read by actor Tom Key. Other narration was delivered by actress Pamela Gold and a large part was spoken by Sidlin himself, who also conducted. The vocal quartet for the Requiem music was soprano Othalie Graham, mezzo-soprano Susana Poretsky, tenor Marco Panuccio and bass Alfred Walker.

The performance opened with video testimonies from survivors who sang in Schächter’s Requiem chorus. That was followed by the lone violin of guest concertmaster Herbert Greenberg, who played Bach’s famous Chaconne in D minor. Sidlin began his narration, which was followed by a building cacophony of music heard in Terezín in conjunction with visuals from posters and concert programs. It was all suddenly interrupted by the loud blast of a train whistle, after which music from Verdi’s Requiem itself entered.

One of the features of the Requiem music was Sidlin’s use of an out-of-tune upright piano to emulate the damaged piano that was available for the prisoners to accompany rehearsals and performance. He then elicited a Bergman-esque “stage of the mind” technique to transition from Verdi accompanied by piano to Verdi with orchestra and vice versa, something used several times in the course of the evening.

If there is any real shortcoming to Sidlin’s “Defiant Requiem,” it is its sheer length. At around two hours, without intermission or other real pause, it is substantially longer than Verdi’s original 85-minute Requiem. Oddly enough, there is too much Verdi within the narrative framework that Sidlin has established. Reducing the duration by removing a good bit of Verdi’s music would actually have better served the framing context.

While the chorus, with its typically astute singing, kept its segments of the Requiem engaging, other sections — even with the soloists alone or in ensemble — simply began to wear thin. The psychological pace of these long stretches of music did not keep up with segments where Sidlin used more frequent interplay of music, visuals and narration.

This was compounded by the fact that the audience was without an English translation of the Requiem text — nor were there supertitles — so it was hard for anyone who was not already familiar with any Requiem Mass, much less Verdi’s, not to feel a certain degree of restlessness or even desire to escape. A few did: four couples in the row where I was seated got up and left at different times in the latter part of the performance. Unfortunately for them, they missed the best part.

The music on the final page of the Requiem’s vocal score was sung, with the soprano’s solemn chant “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda” on middle C followed by the final statements of “Libera me” by unison chorus. Suddenly the shriek of a train whistle again was heard, followed by images of prisoners being put onto trains to be shipped off to their deaths.

Then a lone clarinet began to play a tune that was simultaneously hummed by the chorus: “Oseh Shalom,” performed slowly, mournfully and wordlessly. It was repeated all the while as chorus, soloists and orchestra began to leave the stage. The meaning was poignant, as the words to which it belongs are those that conclude the Kaddish prayer: “May He who makes peace in His high places, grant peace among us and for all Israel; and let us say, Amen.”

At the end, only the sole violinist who played the Chaconne at the beginning was left to conclude the prayerful melody as the lights completely dimmed. A projected text requested that instead of applause, a moment of silence be observed to honor Rafael Schächter and his Terezín chorus. The audience, deeply moved by the experience, respectfully complied.

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