A performance of Verdi’s Requiem carries the voices of Theresienstadt 

click to enlarge JEFF ROFFMAN
  • Jeff Roffman

When you conjure the image of a Nazi concentration camp in your mind, you’ll likely meet the gaze of gaunt eyes or follow the textures of malnourished ribs and tattered clothes.

If you imagine the sounds arising from behind the barbed wire fence, you might hear cries, screams or nothing at all.

The landscape was bleak in Holocaust camps. But while prisoners had little to voice to speak with, a select few could sing what all needed to say.

Performing 16 times over the course of its tenure in the Theresienstadt fortress camp in Terezín, Czechoslovakia, a chorus of 150 Jewish prisoners defied their captors with renditions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem.

“They were kind of the showcase for the Nazis,” said Dr. Randi Von Ellefson, artistic director of Canterbury Choral Society, who explained that the prisoners were shown off to inspecting Red Cross parties as evidence of good treatment. “These were the happy Jews.”

Of course, this wasn’t at all true. The chorus was simply the only avenue of protest and power available to the prisoners. Behind the seemingly well-stocked storefronts erected as part of the Nazis’ Verschönerung, a false beautification process, there was little but death and dust.

The story of the Terezín chorus is one of its esteemed and charismatic conductor, Rafael Schächter, and Murry Sidlin his fellow inmates, but it couldn’t have been written without American conductor Murry Sidlin.

Sidlin, currently Dean of the School of Music at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., undertook research of Terezín, which gave rise to a dramatic performance recounting the story of the camp and its steadfast will. The nationally touring performance of Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín comes to Civic Center Music Hall at 3 p.m. Sunday. Sidlin will conduct.

The performance requires a massive cooperative effort involving a choir of nearly 200 singers, the full orchestra of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, four soloists, actors and a narrator. In addition to the full Requiem by Verdi, the performance includes film clips and recitations. But its impact goes beyond enormity.

“It’s so much more than a concert,” Von Ellefson said. “You have to put into context the Czech Jews who had never sung Latin, learning this piece by rote at night in a dank basement with an out-of-tune piano.”

There was only one vocal score of the music. And their piano had no legs.

The story is nothing short of powerful, he continued. It’s one of the few experiences in life that will really change you because of the depth of honesty and insight into the cruelty of the prisoners’ existence. For instance, each of the 16 times Rafael Schächter performed the piece, he had to retrain singers because members of his chorus would be shipped off to Auschwitz, the notorious extermination camp known for its gas chambers.

“It’s Verdi’s Requiem, but in a completely different context,” Von Ellefson said. “That’s why it’s called Defiant Requiem. It’s sort of like the prisoners are saying to the Nazis, ‘Someday, you will be judged for this.’”

Verdi’s Requiem is widely known even though people might not be able to call it to mind.

But when you hear it, you’ll know, said Von Ellefson. The recognizable part is the “Dies irae,” which cycles back through the piece four times and has been used in numerous television commercials. Its popularity and renown is comparable to “Ode to Joy,” the fourth movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

“By far, it’s probably the most famous piece of music that everyone would know,” Von Ellefson said.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City collaborated on the performance, offering financial and outreach support in addition to something much more important.

“One might not be able to tell why a Jewish person would be interested in doing the Verdi Requiem,” Von Ellefson said. “We wanted to have their blessing.”

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 8, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art will hold a Meet the Maestro lecture, in which a Q&A with Murry Sidlin will follow clips from the documentary film Defiant Requiem. A reception on the OKCMOA rooftop will round out the night.

Print headline: Unlikely chorus, A performance of Verdi’s Requiem carries the voices of Theresienstadt.

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