How did they do it?
How did the hungry, sick and dying Jews of the Terezin ghetto/concentration camp manage to learn Verdi’s Requiem in the midst of such horrors?
How did they summon the strength to perform this Mass for the dead not once or twice but fully 16 times?
And how did they deliver their final performance — on June 23, 1944 — for an audience of their Nazi captors and members of the International Red Cross?
More than seven decades later, answers elude us, and the scope of their heroism transcends description. But the lessons of their achievement resonate to this day, not just in books and films but startlingly in “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” a concert-drama that had its Chicago premiere Thursday night in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center.
Conductor Murry Sidlin, who created “Defiant Requiem” and has made it central to his musical life, has designed the evening as a complete performance of Verdi’s masterpiece intertwined with narration, film clips and survivor testimony. In effect, the piece places Verdi’s Requiem in tragic historical context, its musical sections alternating with recitations by Sidlin and two actors (Tovah Feldshuh and Peter Riegert), plus historical footage and video soliloquies from those who sang or listened in Terezin and miraculously lived to tell the story.
If Sidlin had done nothing more than introduce the Holocaust theme, then led vocalists and instrumentalists in the Requiem, this would have been a memorable occasion. For the Chicago Philharmonic produced an impassioned reading (with just a few technical lapses), while four vocal soloists brought considerable ardor to their work, as did a massive gathering of three choirs: the Chicago Vocal Artists Ensemble, Roosevelt University Conservatory Chorus and Roosevelt Alumni Chorus (all exquisitely well-prepared by choral director Cheryl Frazes Hill).
The sheer force of so many musicians delivering Verdi’s quasi-operatic Mass very nearly overwhelmed the listener, as it was intended to do.
But add to this the sight of Terezin survivors on screen recalling what it was like to perform the Verdi Requiem when you didn’t know if you would live to see another day, and the evening ceased to be merely a concert. Instead, it was by turns a statement of faith in the face of atrocity and a profound remembrance of those who were murdered for their identities.
Performing the Requiem in Terezin, located about 40 miles northwest of Prague (in the former Czechoslovakia) amounted to “resistance to what was imposed on us,” survivor Edgar Krasa said in one of the video segments.
“It’s very difficult to sing when you’re hungry,” said survivor Marianka Zadikow May in another clip. But “this was our battle. Good against evil. Music against violence and death.”
Actor Riegert delivered the words of Rafael Schachter, the visionary pianist-conductor who trained the amateur chorus in Terezin and led all the Requiem performances there. And actor Feldshuh recited observations of those who survived (the text proved thoroughly moving, but the authors should have been cited by name).
When Sidlin wasn’t conducting, he served as narrator, his script — like the rest of the production — concise and eloquent. For “Defiant Requiem” did not sensationalize or exploit its subject matter, instead respecting the gravity of the events it revisited (notwithstanding an unfortunate cartoon illustration on the cover of the program and on the production’s website).
Nowhere was “Defiant Requiem” more disturbing than when scenes from a Nazi propaganda film shot in Terezin played on the screen, while soprano Jennifer Check and mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero sang the “Agnus Dei” movement. Many of the men, women and children filmed in staged scenes of supposed bliss in Terezin soon would be sent to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau and elsewhere. The music was accompanied on this night by the sound of those in the audience quietly weeping (the event was a Jewish Federation benefit for Holocaust survivors).
Tenor Zach Borichevsky and bass Nathan Stark sang fervently throughout, but the most devastating moments came toward the end, when, one by one, the orchestra members departed the stage, followed by the choristers, who sang as they left through the auditorium. The exodus evoked, of course, the Jews of Terezin being sent off to their deaths, the piercing cry of a train whistle underscoring the metaphor.
Never again will I hear Verdi’s Requiem without thinking of this performance, and what happened in Terezin.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.