Hope From Horror



Maestro Murry Sidlin brings his multimedia
Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin
— a true story of art and courage during the Holocaust
— to Detroit

Murry Sidlin conducting

Murry Sidlin happened by a sidewalk used-book sale and noticed Music in Terezin, 1941-1945 by Joza Karas.

The title of the book resonated with the award-winning conductor. His own father had mourned relatives murdered in Latvia and introduced his son to books and movies that documented the wider devastation.

Sidlin, on the faculty of the University of Minnesota at the time, read about the Nazi ghetto and concentration camp, also known as Theresienstadt, in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. He became intrigued with the history of Rafael Schachter, a conductor taken to Terezin where he organized a chorus of 150 prisoners, taught them Verdi’s Requiem by rote and led them through 16 performances of the work.

Rafael Schachter

Sidlin, who went on to become resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony and others, researched Schachter’s initiative and met with survivors who had been in the chorus. He also visited Terezin.

Already working on concert-dramas that combined music, narration and multimedia elements, Sidlin developed a concert-drama entitled Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin and established the Defiant Requiem Foundation to support presentations through film and related programming.

The concert-drama, performed internationally with Sidlin as conductor, makes its Michigan debut May 4 at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield and May 6-7 at Orchestra Hall in Detroit.

The presentations feature the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Community Chorus and four soloists the conductor has worked with many times: Jennifer Check, soprano; Ann McMahon Quintero, mezzo soprano; Issachah Savage, tenor; and Nathan Stark, bass.

Associated programs have been planned to supplement the concert-drama, including a discussion with Sidlin, a screening of the Defiant Requiem documentary and an art exhibit. (See sidebar.)

“Coming to Detroit is really important to us,” says Sidlin, who has made the program the centerpiece of his career and has led more than 40 performances of the work since 2002.

“We look forward to bringing the message and spirit of the Terezin prisoners, survivors and those who didn’t survive, to audiences in Detroit.

“No matter how many times we have performed Defiant Requiem, we never fully grasp the courage and dignity of the Terezin performers. There they were — starving, mostly sick and living in horror — and the arts were looked upon as nutrition and elements of survival.”

Often asked is why a composition steeped in Catholic liturgy was chosen to be performed at a concentration camp where almost everyone was Jewish, but the words had special impact in a 1944 performance.

In the only surviving photo of the Terezin chorus, Schachter conducts prisoners in a rehearsal of Verdi’s Requiem for an upcoming performance for the Red Cross inspection in 1944

Although prisoners presented the work for Nazi officers and members of the International Red Cross (as German propaganda to show that Jewish prisoners were treated well), they were able to sing “nothing shall remain unavenged” and “from the ashes, the guilty man to be judged” in front of their oppressors — in a bold condemnation of the Nazis.

Defiant Requiem has a dominant objective for the maestro: to ensure that audiences hearing the original Requiem — after experiencing the concert-drama — should always think of the Terezin choir and the sacrifices made by people learning and performing this mammoth composition under horrific conditions.

“Verdi’s Requiem was always a gripping piece of music,” says Sidlin, who performed it before creating Defiant Requiem. “I never thought of it only as a religious piece, although it is spiritually profound.

“If you’re not Catholic, it’s still spiritually profound. It’s beautifully written, and I think it’s one of Verdi’s great compositions. Although I had liked conducting this work before [starting this project], it now has a deeper and more profound and memorable meaning for me.”

Sidlin, who received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, occasionally is invited to do a concert that doesn’t relate to the Holocaust. The maestro thinks of these performances as less-intense “holiday” work that offers a sometimes “healthy” break.

In addition to Defiant Requiem, Sidlin has developed a second concert-drama focused on Terezin, Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer. It presents music by 15 imprisoned composers and combines video, music and narrative.

A 2013 performance of Defiant Requiem in Prague

When the maestro holds his discussion session, he will cover the origins of the cultural society in the concentration camp and delve into the ways prisoners held lectures to advance intellectual interests.

“In my lecture, I try to play some of the music that was composed at Terezin,” he says. Some small instruments were brought by musicians as they entered confinement and other instruments were used as allowed from Nazi confiscations. There was even a new music studio that had 20 composers at work.

“I have never given a performance of the Verdi Requiem in the form of the Defiant Requiem or a speech about Terezin where there wasn’t somebody with a strong Terezin connection in the audience,” says the maestro, who has conducted concerts with the Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids symphonies.

“Someone always comes up to me after a performance or talk to tell me about an aunt, uncle, grandfather or somebody else imprisoned or sometimes lost.”

Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer

Defiant Requiem will be performed 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4, at Shaarey Zedek in Southfield and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 6, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 7, at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. $25 adults and $10 children at Shaarey Zedek; $15 starting price at Orchestra Hall.
(313) 576-5111; dso.org/requiem.


The Michigan showings of the concert-drama Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin will be supplemented with a number of programs supported by an honorary committee headed by Joanne Danto and Arnold Weingarden.

“There has been a year of planning to bring this programming together,” says Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi Aaron Starr, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. “We are honored to partner in the hosting of this series to educate and uplift the community.”

In partnership with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; the Anti-Defamation League, Michigan Region; Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies; Holocaust Memorial Center, Zekelman Family Campus; Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and more, the schedule features:

April 26: “The ‘Model’ Concentration Camp Theresienstadt” discussed by Amy Simon of the Department of History and Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, 7 p.m. at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. (Registration required, call for cost.)
(248) 642-4618.

Through May 5: The Butterfly art exhibit holds works by children from Congregation Shaarey Zedek inspired by Defiant Requiem and a 1942 poem by a child imprisoned in Terezin and later killed at Auschwitz. Free. (248) 357-5544.

April 30: Defiant Requiem documentary screening, 7 p.m. at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield. Free. (248) 661-1900.

May 1: Discussion with Maestro Murry Sidlin, 7 p.m. at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Free. (248) 357-5544.


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