Music-making in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt/Terezín continues to fascinate, baffle and inspire us. While the sheer abundance of performances of many styles of music in such conditions is difficult to imagine, the concert-drama “Defiant Requiem – Verdi at Terezín” endeavours to awaken our understanding of a singularly extraordinary musical mission. Starting in September 1943, the visionary conductor Rafael (Rafi) Schächter shaped 16 performances of Verdi’s dramatic and challenging setting of the Catholic Mass for the dead, training along the way hundreds of Jewish prisoners to memorize the choral parts from a single score. This story is told partly through narrative delivered by the conductor and artistic creator of the program, Murry Sidler, while a large video screen offers supporting images and excerpts of texts from former Terezín inmates, some of which a pair of actors delivers live onstage (Erwin Steinhauer as Schächter himself, Katharina Stemberger as The Lecturer). Imagination is key to the whole enterprise, to the audience of this thoughtfully shaped concert-drama, as it was to the many Jews who participated in Schächter’s ambitious performances.

© Ouriel Morgensztern
© Ouriel Morgensztern

The first musical sounds that one hears are not from Verdi’s Requiem, but the concertmaster playing Bach’s poignant Chaconne in D minor. This same piece also sounds at the climactic scene of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera The Passenger, which has just reached the stage for the first time in Russia and has been produced in several other cities in the last six years. In the opera, a violinist ordered to perform for SS officers in Auschwitz defiantly plays Bach’s Chaconne instead of a banal waltz. At that moment, we feel how music can transcend political differences, and also embody the will and moral resistance of oppressed people. With the Requiem’s Latin text and apparent distance from Jewish practices, some in Terezín worried that it might appear they were apologizing for their faith by performing Verdi’s work. The collective opinion that took root, however, was that performing the work enabled them to sing to the Nazis what they dared not say.

Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno © Ouriel Morgensztern
Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno
© Ouriel Morgensztern

This performance in Vienna's Konzerthaus featured the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno and the Orchester Wiener Akademie, with a compelling quartet of soloists: Aga Mikolaj, Annely Peebo, Brude Sledge and Jongmin Park. The penetrating power of Verdi’s Requiem, in my experience, can be diminished by expectations of excellence and performance virtuosity in the concert hall setting. The tremendous eruptions of the Dies irae rarely fail to hit their mark, but extended passages can go by without prompting much reflection on what is actually being sung. It is easy, for stylistic reasons, to think of the score’s dramatic qualities as operatic, and thus fictional, rather than grounded in individual and collective experiences that might touch us directly. The intensely communicative and human performance of the “Defiant Requiem” has forever changed how I will hear this music and text.

Several of the sections of the “Defiant Requiem” begin and/or end with only piano accompaniment (Miriam Zuziaková), inviting us to hear how those in Terezín experienced this music without an orchestra. The singers, like us, would however have been unable to lock their memories of fuller sonorities through the piano’s cues. Even when the full orchestra took over in the Konzerthaus, certain phrases and especially silences conveyed fresh, urgent meaning, such as Jongmin Park’s sublimely controlled utterance Salva me towards the end of the Rex tremendae, as did each and every appeal for peace and salvation from eternal death. Unexpected and welcome was the especially ecstatic Sanctus, which followed an interview excerpt in which a former Terezín prisoner emphasized the “pure joy” of singing Verdi’s music. She credited the Requiem rehearsals as “saving her life”.

Murry Sidlin conducting the <i>Defiant Requiem</i> © Ouriel Morgensztern
Murry Sidlin conducting the Defiant Requiem
© Ouriel Morgensztern

The darker turns toward the end of the “Defiant Requiem” performance mirror developments in the last months of the war, when the Nazis concealed realities of how the camp functioned when the Red Cross visited, and an utterly deceptive film was made on site. Watching excerpts of this footage during the performance of the Agnus Dei was a surreal experience. Schächter’s group was told to perform for the Red Cross, and by that time his chorus was much weakened, reduced to about sixty voices, so he tried to recruit new forces. While still committed to his mission, Schächter’s hopes that the visitors would glimpse the real meaning behind their performance were not realized. He perished on a death march shortly before the war finally drew to a close. While some of his choristers survived, the close of the “Defiant Requiem” performance honours those who were silenced. The chorus and orchestra gradually left the stage during a clarinet lament doubled by violin, which as in the opening was the only instrument heard at the very end, this time framed not by an orchestra and chorus, but only the lights of their empty music stands.