March 12, 2015



In desperate times music has been used by the persecuted as both a means of resistance and as spiritual sustenance. During his internment in Terezin, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia that the Nazis claimed was a model community for Jews, the conductor Rafael Schächter led an inmate choir in performances of Verdi’s “Requiem” that served both as a morale booster and subtle rebellion.

“Defiant Requiem,” a poignant multimedia tribute to Schächter, who along with most of his choir died in captivity, was created by the conductor Murry Sidlin, incorporating Verdi’s work and having its premiere in Oregon in 2002. Mr. Sidlin led a performance by the Orchestra of Terezin Remembrance and the Collegiate Chorale at Avery Fisher Hall on Monday evening.

Mr. Sidlin’s creation has been criticized for emotional manipulation and for being an exaggerated extravaganza that gives voice to the “seductive fiction that suffering
ennobles art,” criticism that seems to miss the point. With the grim updates about the destruction of the rich cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria becoming depressingly frequent, “Defiant Requiem” can be seen as a landmark of a different sort: a monument to the courage of one man to foster hope among prisoners with little other solace.

The starving choir, whose numbers were repeatedly depleted as members were
sent to their deaths, sang Verdi’s “Requiem” — a Roman Catholic funeral Mass that offers a searing depiction of Judgment Day — 16 times. The performances, cobbled together after inmates studied a single, smuggled score, represented both a plea
for salvation and a defiant message to their tormentors that their day of reckoning awaited.

“Defiant Requiem” is interspersed with footage of Terezin survivors, who recount their experiences in Schächter’s choir.

The chorale sounded fine throughout, and the orchestra played with commitment, apart from a few rough edges and intonation problems. Bebe Neuwirth and John Rubinstein were effective narrators. The soloists proved strong: The lustrous-voiced soprano Jennifer Check and the mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero sang beautifully, and the tenor Steven Tharp and the bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer also made fine contributions.

The clarinetist Jon Manasse played with eloquence the Hebrew prayer for peace concluding the work. Then the orchestra walked down the aisles as the audience sat quiet and unmoving.

A version of this review appeared in print on March 12, 2015, on page C3 of the New York edition with the headline: Verdi as Act of Rebellion.