What happened in Newport Beach early last month was shocking: photos of Newport Harbor High School students giving the Nazi salute at a party, posters with swastikas appearing on campus.
Shocking – but not uncommon these days, said Murry Sidlin. Still, the well-known conductor, who is in town to perform a work that uniquely honors victims of the Holocaust, said he’s saddened that anti-Semitism is becoming a regular headline in his native country. The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last October was a turning point, Sidlin thinks.
“Does (this new round of anti-Semitism) surprise me? Yes it does. Prior to a couple of years ago, according to the Anti-Defamation League and the State Department, the U.S. had the lowest rate of anti-Semitic behavior in the world – not non-existent, but hardly newsworthy or threatening. Now that’s all changed.”
Sidlin is in Orange County to present “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín” with the Pacific Symphony on April 16. Created by Sidlin, “Defiant Requiem” tells an amazing story about a group of Jewish prisoners in the Terezín Concentration Camp, located about 30 miles north of Prague during World War II, who performed Verdi’s huge and challenging Requiem Mass under unimaginably trying circumstances.
Sidlin’s multi-media work combines Verdi’s choral masterpiece with live actors, video testimony from survivors, film footage from Terezín and interviews with original chorus members. “Defiant Requiem” recounts how and why these Jewish prisoners chose to learn and perform the Verdi Requiem during their darkest hours, using only a single smuggled score. They sang it 16 times; one performance was attended by senior SS officials from Berlin and an International Red Cross delegation. Conductor Rafael Schächter told the choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”
Sidlin, a well-respected teacher and multi-decade veteran of the conducting world, became involved in the Verdi project completely by chance. He came across a description of it while casually browsing the bargain bin at a Minneapolis bookstore. “I opened this book randomly and discovered it was full of short chapters. It was a kind of primer about the camp – who was there and who made musical contributions, what kind of lives and careers they had before the war, and what happened to the survivors after the war.”
Sidlin turned randomly to a chapter about Rafael Schächter. He stood on a street corner, transfixed, reading three short pages.
The Romanian-born conductor brought only two scores with him when he was taken to Terezín. One was Verdi’s Requiem. “He didn’t even known if he’d have an opportunity to make music,” Sidlin said. “But I know about the Verdi Requiem. When it gets into a conductor’s blood you just can’t leave home without it.”
Sidlin still marvels that Schächter and his group gave 16 performances at Terezín.
“They were essentially slave labor working with hardly any nutrition, toiling eight to 12 hours a day, eight days of work before any break. And he somehow found time to go into this dark, airless, cold basement with men who didn’t have the music. He had the only score. Some of the soloists knew it from memory. But the choir itself, they were all amateurs. He pounded out parts on a small harmonium and slowly pieced it together.”
Sidlin found out that Schächter had to constantly rebuild his choir as members left. “The members of the choir, one-half to two-thirds of them were deported, shipped out to whatever fate awaited them. But he just started over with new prisoners. He eventually had three choirs.”
Sidlin has talked to a few survivors who attended one of those 16 special performances. “They were stunned that he could do it, and deeply moved. And they were just absolutely grateful.”
No Applause Allowed
Sidlin decided he had to do something in response to this amazing yet largely forgotten story. “The first thing I did was I went looking for people who had sung in the choir; they shared their experiences with me. It’s the story that’s really important. It’s all about the power of the arts to triumph over the most impossible hardships.”
Sidlin knew he wanted his work to involve more than simply performing the Verdi Requiem. “I asked myself, ‘What is the best way to get this story out? Book? Film?’ The Verdi Requiem may very well be the second most performed oratorio in music history after The Messiah. I had a feeling that if we performed it in the context of Terezín, people would come.”
He painstakingly assembled the work over several years and presented it in April, 2002. “We tried it in Portland Oregon and it was very successful right away.” It has been performed almost 50 times since – extraordinary for a work that requires huge forces and is very difficult to stage.
“We don’t permit applause during or after the work, so we can’t use that as a barometer,” Sidlin said. “But judging from the comments I heard from people, we’re having the desired effect. It’s extremely moving. And we haven’t had a single bad review in all this time.”
“Defiant Requiem” is structured theatrically. “We call it a concert drama,” Sidlin said. “My role as conductor is similar to that of the stage manager in ‘Our Town.’ I’m the person who leads the audience through the whole experience. There are two actors. One represents Schächter. Although we don’t know what he said in rehearsal, we do know something of his tone and demeanor.
“Then there’s the lecturer, who is a composite of five different people. He tries to explain how people were affected by the Requiem, including the Nazis. And the survivors who were actually there – we have video testimonials from them as well.”
Sidlin is making several public appearances this week and in the days leading up to the performance in Costa Mesa. “It’s rare that we go into a city and only do a performance and then pack up and leave. When we’re there, we are involved in round tables, I speak at synagogues, and I make myself available to people and groups who want me to talk. And believe me, everywhere we go these days, people want me to talk.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.