Moving Holocaust remembrances

`Defiant Requiem' stirs audience with dramatic touches


April 20, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Adding a multimedia dimension to a classical concert is nothing new, but an imaginative and sensitive application can still seem fresh. There was an extraordinarily compelling example over the weekend.

I've heard performances of Verdi's Requiem by more seasoned choruses and orchestras, and certainly heard them in better spaces than Catholic University's Pryzbyla University Center, but none that moved me more deeply or left me more unsettled than the one given there Sunday night.

Created a few years ago as "a concert drama" by Murry Sidlin, dean of CU's school of music, this Defiant Requiem - Verdi at Terezin combines a presentation of the profound score with visual and spoken documentary.

Terezin was the Nazi concentration camp near Prague where a gifted conductor, Rafael Schachter, gathered 150 singers and, with only a battered piano for support, took on the enormous challenge of preparing the Requiem. It was performed 16 times over a two-year period, with new singers recruited to replace those shipped to Auschwitz. One audience included the notorious Adolf Eichmann, who mocked "These crazy Jews, singing their own requiem."

But Schachter's idea to use Verdi's setting of the ancient Latin Mass for the Dead was far from crazy. Text became subtext each time the emaciated choristers sang the warnings of wrathful judgment against the wicked, and, perhaps most poignantly, the reflections on those souls who, as "promised of old to Abraham and his seed," would be delivered "from the pains of hell" to "pass from death to life."

Sidlin's Defiant Requiem, adapted for a showing on PBS last year, calls on the conductor to offer periodic commentary. Actors portray Schachter and other figures, and, on film, recollections by survivors of the Terezin choir provide extra context.

Historic photos and, almost too painful to watch, footage from a Nazi propaganda film made at the camp are interspersed as well. Sometimes, the flow of Verdi's music is awkwardly stopped to allow for these additions, a practice I found artistically questionable. But, in a way, the interruptions could be seen to underline the precarious situation faced by everyone at Terezin, where life, not just music, was routinely cut off.

For this presentation, the University Center, which is just a big, ugly, low-ceilinged multipurpose room, was configured to provide an unusually intimate experience for such a large-scale work (the room subtly suggested a barrack). The listener was placed inside the music and inside Terezin.

The last notes of Verdi's score segued into a O Say Shalom from the Jewish Kaddish service, hummed by the singers and played by a steadily dwindling number of instrumentalists as the performers filed out of the room and the lights dimmed. The audience was asked not to applaud. The only sound I heard was sobbing.

Sidlin's generally fast tempos and urgent phrasing yielded a consistently impressive interpretation that communicated strongly, despite the commentary breaks. The university's chorus, supplemented by members of the Washington Chorus, sang with considerable discipline and passion. Solid brass and percussion work drove the school orchestra's performance. The guest soloists - soprano Sharon Christman, tenor Philip Webb, bass Gary Relyea and, especially mezzo Eleni Matos - offered terrific intensity. The speaking parts, too, were delivered potently.

One of Sidlin's most inspired ideas for Defiant Requiem was to have a small, not well-tuned piano accompany some of the music, providing yet another affecting connection to the Terezin experience. The past couldn't sound much closer.

The past was also recalled Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the Baltimore Jewish Council presented a program of Music, Remembrance and Reflection to commemorate the Holocaust. Images of the Warsaw Ghetto, before and after the heroic uprising, were projected while pianist Eric Conway played poetically sculpted Nocturnes by Chopin.

Erwin Schulhoff, one of many notable Jewish composers who died in a concentration camp, is slowly being rediscovered. His clever, sparkling neoclassical Piano Concerto from 1922 deserves to be better known. It has a disarming proponent in pianist Jan Simon, who brought clarity and warmth to the solo part, with supple support from conductor Elli Jaffe and lively playing from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.