The most famous, roof-rattling passage in Giuseppe Verdi's "Requiem" describes the "day of wrath" for the guilty as they face their eternal fate: "How great will be the terror when the Judge comes who will smash everything completely … Whatever is hidden will be revealed. Nothing shall remain unavenged."
To hear, let alone sing, those words in ordinary concert halls can be a pretty shattering experience. It is difficult to grasp what it must have been like for the Jewish prisoners at the Terezin concentration camp who performed the Verdi work 16 times in 1943-1944, having learned the music by heart — there was only one score for 150 singers.
In a multimedia program called "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin," which will be presented before sold-out houses at the Peabody Institute this week, this incredible story is commemorated.
With only an ill-tuned, damaged piano to practice with, those prisoners found in Verdi's profound music not just a prayer for deliverance, but an act of defiance. Each performance became a way of delivering a pointed message to the Nazi guards, reminding them that they would surely face judgment for their crimes.
In the documentary film also called "Defiant Requiem" that premiered on PBS this month, Marianka May, an original chorus member who survived Terezin, describes how Verdi's music "put all of us into another world. This was not a world with the Nazis. This was our world."
May said that she and her fellow prisoners felt they were "singing to God, and God can't help but hear us."
More than a decade ago, Baltimore-born conductor Murry Sidlin set about creating the "Defiant Requiem" project to make sure that someone heard those voices. He fashioned a "concert drama" that combined narration, historical film footage and a complete performance of the Verdi score.
Since its premiere in Oregon in 2002, "Defiant Requiem" has been presented in such cities as Washington, Atlanta, Jerusalem and Budapest, as well as, most significantly, three times on the site of Terezin in what is now the Czech Republic.
Later this month, Sidlin will lead the New York premiere. Performances in Prague and Berlin are in the near future.
"I am 100 percent dedicated to illuminating the legacy of Terezin," said Sidlin, 72, whose music career began in the 1970s with his appointment as assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "We are indebted to and responsible to the memory of the prisoners, who called upon art to give them greater humanity and dignity, and to the survivors who are still with us."
Sidlin founded the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which sponsors the live performances of the concert drama, and the Rafael Schachter Institute for Arts and Humanities, a summer program of seminars and workshops at Terezin, named for the man who organized and conducted all the Verdi "Requiem" performances at the camp.
Terezin, which the Germans called Theresienstadt, was the Nazis' showplace, built more for containment and abuse than extermination. A remarkable cultural life somehow flourished amid the deprivation, disease and death.
A good deal of music was performed there; several works were composed there, most of them brought to light only in recent years. There were many lectures and readings — more than 2,000 were documented.
In June 1944, Red Cross inspectors were paraded through this supposedly contented community of well-cared-for Jews. The inspectors, joined by a contingent of high-level SS officers that may have included the notorious Adolf Eichmann (there are conflicting reports on his presence), were treated to a performance of the Verdi "Requiem." It was the last.
Schachter was deported to Auschwitz in October that year and met his death in a gas chamber the day after he arrived. Most of the Terezin prisoners, who included thousands of children, were also sent to their deaths before the war ended.
In June, Sidlin, former dean of the School of Music at Catholic University, will receive the Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center for his efforts to bring fresh attention to Schachter's legacy and to re-create the performances of the Verdi "Requiem" at Terezin.
Other aspects of the camp history have caught Sidlin's attention.
"I'm interested in investigating Viktor Ullmann's 'The Emperor from Atlantis,' which he composed at Terezin but was not performed there," Sidlin said. "The Jewish elders felt it would cause too much trouble. There are many other people and many pieces I'm interested in exploring."
For now, the "Defiant Requiem" remains the conductor's primary focus. Each performance means preparing new forces — Verdi calls for large chorus and orchestra, along with four vocal soloists of operatic caliber.
"I always worry about doing the best job we can to illuminate the story and to serve the composer," Sidlin said. "It is never easy, with all the technical matters involved. But I am very impressed with everyone at Peabody. I'm so touched that [Peabody director] Jeff Sharkey endorsed this project 1,000 percent from Day 1."
Performances of "Defiant Requiem" at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Peabody Institute are sold out.
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