Six years ago, at Catholic University in Washington, there was an unusual presentation of Giuseppe Verdi's monumental Requiem for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The last notes of the score gave way to very different music, coming softly from the choristers. As they filed off the stage and left the hall, they softly intoned a chant from the Kaddish of the Jewish liturgy.
When those sounds, too, faded away, there was no applause from the audience. Only some muffled sobs could be heard in the darkened room.
That extraordinary scene sums up the power of "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin," a multimedia concert devised by Murry Sidlin, the Baltimore-born conductor who will lead a long-sold-out performance of the work this week at the Kennedy Center with the Catholic University Chorus and other forces.
"This is my personal mission," says Sidlin, 70, who just finished an eight-year tenure as a dean of CU's school of music.
Terezin, which the Nazis called Theresienstadt, was a concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia where an extraordinary number of Jewish scholars and artists were held, most of them only until being sent to Auschwitz. It was also the site of a notorious propaganda film, made to show how "humanely" the Jews were being treated. A portion of that film, from June 1944, shows prisoners performing Verdi's Requiem in front of International Red Cross officials and a contingent of Nazi brass.
Sidlin, who started his career as assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra nearly 40 years ago, first came across the remarkable story of Verdi at Terezin in the late 1990s. He was on the faculty of University of Minnesota's school of music at the time.
"It was like being struck by lightning," he says. "It was a wonderful April day in Minneapolis, and I was walking down a street past a bookstore that had a sale rack outside. This is absolutely true. I reached in and pulled out a book called 'Music in Terezin' [by Joza Karas]."
Sidlin randomly opened a page and started reading a short chapter about a man named Rafael Schaecter.
"He was a Romanian-born Czech citizen, an opera coach and conductor," Sidlin says. "He put together in Terezin a voluntary chorus of 150. He only had one score of the Verdi Requiem and taught the music by rote. He gave 16 performances between late September 1943 and June 1944.
"I know what it takes for amateurs to sing the Verdi Requiem under the best of circumstances, but can you imagine doing something this under those conditions? I kept asking myself, 'What are these Jews singing a work of the Catholic liturgy in a place where they were imprisoned because they were Jewish?'"
Sidlin, a congenial man with a very conductorlike silver mane, grows more impassioned as he talks, in between sips of decaf coffee in a downtown Baltimore greasy spoon.
"I searched libraries for more information and found a lot about the arts in Terezin," he says. "There were 1,000 concerts given in the camp. There were 2.400 lectures on every conceivable subject, given by 535 prisoners. It became what I call the accidental university."
Schaecter conducted performances of several works, including oratorios and operas. He saw the Requiem "as a way they could sing to the Nazis what they could not say to them. The point was to offer hope and courage and spiritual reassurance," Sidlin says. "Nowhere was the Verdi Requiem better understood by singers."
When the prisoners sang of the pending "day of wrath, the day of judgment," or sang of how souls, as "promised of old to Abraham and his seed," would be delivered "from the pains of hell," the double meaning had to be almost unbearably poignant.
Sidlin's "Defiant Requiem" incorporates actors, commentary, film and recollections by survivors of the Terezin choir. Some of those survivors will be present for the Kennedy Center performance.
In 1998, Sidlin met pianist Edith Steiner-Kraus, then in her 90s. She had been at Terezin and had heard the Requiem many times.
"I asked her 'How did the chorus sound?' and she looked at me and said, 'The superficial nature of your question bothers me.' I began to schvitz," Sidlin says, using the piquant Yiddish word for sweating profusely. "She said, 'You want to know about the rhythmic precision, the balance of voices, the phrasing, all these musicianly things, as if any of that mattered. We were so far inside the music that we were at Verdi's table.'"
Sidlin found her reply overwhelming, as he did the description from another survivor who recalled what it was like to be in the audience for a performance of the Requiem, how "we listened desperately" to the music, with the same focus and intensity they would have had running "to grab a piece of bread someone had dropped."
"The next time you are at a concert," Sidlin says, "look around and see if anyone is listening desperately."