Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Defiant Requiem:Verdi at Terezin in the 2012 Israel Festival

“The Defiant Requiem – Verdi at Terezin” performed at the International Convention Center Jerusalem May 31st 2012, was a pivotal event of the 2012 Israel Festival and of “Days of Prague”, the latter project bringing several events from Czechoslovakia to this year’s Israel Festival. The evening’s multi-media event was created by distinguished American conductor Murry Sidlin, who also conducted the Jerusalem performance; under Sidlin’s baton were the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Kühn Choir of Prague (director: Marek Vorliček), soprano Ira Bertman, mezzo-soprano Bracha Kol, tenor Yotam Cohen and bass-baritone Assaf Levitin. Actress Yona Elian and actor Sasson Gabai read from the writings of Terezin prisoners. In its present form, “The Defiant Requiem” has had several performances in the USA and one at the site of the Theresienstadt Camp itself. The project had its beginnings one day when Sidlin, at the time on the faculty of the School of Music at the University of Minnesota, passing by a bookstore in Minneapolis, saw a copy of “Music at Terezin” on an outside bookshelf. Perusing its pages, he began to read about Rafael Schächter.

“The Defiant Requiem – Verdi at Terezin” is a tribute to young choral conductor, opera coach and pianist Rafael Schächter, himself a prisoner there, who, in 1943 and 1944, organized and produced 16 performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” at Terezin, a camp populated by many artists and intellectuals. With only one piano-vocal score at hand, he trained all the singers, rehearsing the hungry, overworked inmates in a dank basement in the evenings. After singers were deported to extermination camps, Schächter tirelessly trained new singers until he, himself, was sent to Auschwitz on October 16th 1944, perishing there at age 39.

Prior to the Jerusalem performance, two large screens, standing either side of the stage, showed the entrance to the Theresienstadt Ghetto/Camp, displaying the slogan used by the Nazis “Arbeit macht frei” (Labor Brings Freedom). Surtitles provided translation of spoken texts into English or Hebrew. Interspersed between movements of the music, we saw and heard survivors who had taken part as singers in Terezin talking about the role the Requiem had played in their lives and their survival there. Rafael Schächter took his role as musical director seriously, lecturing, planning and making high demands on his singers (at times, the choir comprised up to 150 singers), his training infusing in them dedication, courage and bravery. He made a point of explaining the composer’s intentions as well as his own interpretation. Sidlin spoke of Schächter as a man with a “magnetic personality”, with a sunny personality; however, when working with his singers on Verdi’s “Requiem”, he was as a “crazed man on a mission”. During rehearsals, nobody was allowed to talk, let alone whisper. The rehearsals gave prisoners time to forget their immediate predicament and the fear of tomorrow; the daily training provided them with respite and the opportunity to be emotionally fortified. One woman talked of the work at rehearsals as being so powerful that they (the inmates) “became the music”, the rehearsals making it possible to survive “as a human being”. She said that Rafael Schächter was the person to first use the term “defiance” in connection with music. It seems the Nazis did not grasp that the performance of this work – at once sacred, operatic, political and demanding - was an act of defiance; for the captors, musical activity served to showcase the “positive cultural life” of the ghetto to the outside world, to camouflage the hunger, rampant disease, lack of medical attention, bone-chilling winter cold and non-stop terror in the camp. We saw a little of a Nazi propaganda film, in which every frame was, in Sidlin’s words, a” sadistic lie”. The only truth was in the depiction of the arts and lectures, this collective, creative life force of the prisoners being exploited to reinforce Nazi lies.

Murry Sidlin spoke of there being a “remarkable, incongruous cacophony” of sounds emanating from many improvised performance centers in Terezin; these provided an artistic outlet for those who refused to allow their captors to dehumanize them. Through music, these prisoners found compassion, a mission, a capacity to inspire hope, courage and dignity. There had been much discussion in the camp as to whether Verdi’s “Requiem” was the right work for Jews to be performing; some prisoners suggested performing more Jewish works. One of the survivors on film, however, spoke of Rafael Schächter's reading of the Requiem as “our battle of good against evil” as “music against violence” as “declaring survival”, another as “absolute joy”. In this way, with members of the Nazi command sitting in the front row at performances, the inmates would sing what they could not say to the Nazis and not to the visiting inspectors of the compliant International Red Cross. In fact, many of the performers sang right up to their final moments, each singing of his personal tragedy, turning the depths of despair into the most elevated of musical experiences. The performers were inspired by the Latin text of the Requiem, travelling, in their minds, from the legless ghetto piano to the full orchestra, imagining the performance to be taking place in Prague, the city a mere hour away.

The Jerusalem event was charged with meaning and energy. Verdi’s “Requiem” demands very large solo voices. Soprano Ira Bertman’s powerful, rich, creamy voice and articulacy had an advantage here, as did tenor Yotam Cohen’s compelling and distinctive voice. Assaf Levitin’s expressiveness made for some moving moments; Bracha Kol’s voice is interesting, its registers, however, differing very much in color and texture. The quartet’s a cappella sections sometimes lacked clean intonation. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra gave a fine performance, doing justice to Verdi’s score, the brass section providing some outstanding moments. The Kühn Choir of Prague’s performance was uplifting and impressive in its accuracy and fine musicianship.

Several effects added to Sidlin’s depiction of the situation in Terezin – train whistles, pictures of Jews lining up at railway stations, a moment from the Chaconne of Bach’s Solo Violin Partita no.2, another moment of a Schubert Lied…and then there was the piano. With the stage dimly lit, some movements of the Requiem would begin with the piano alone accompanying singers; these moments “in Terezin” would seamlessly merge back into the orchestral scoring, with the stage lighting up again. The performance was powerful and uncompromising in spirit – in its joy, compassion and devotion. The message in Murry Sidlin’s initiative, his energetic direction, and his own well-spoken texts was clear to all.

Murry Sidlin is convinced that the Verdi Requiem had never been more inspiring, more humanly important, more personally moving or more completely understood by performers anywhere than by those at Terezin. He suspects that Rafael Schächter and his chorus were less focused on the exact meaning of such movements as the “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) as the Mass intended, but were singing in memory of all who had suffered and perished at the hands of “unauthorized beasts”. For Schächter, his hundreds of singers and their vast prisoner audiences, this music was affirmation of their determination to go on under unthinkable conditions. Murry Sidlin concluded that it is now for us to recall- and treasure the lessons of Terezin. Following the end of the performance, lights were dimmed in the hall and the audience stood in silence to honor the memory of Rafael Schächter – his initiative and dedication. Maestro Murry Sidlin's project is more than admirable. For all of us present, Verdi’s “Requiem” has taken on extra meaning.

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