Story & music to stir the soul: Defiant Requiem -- Verdi at Terezin
A triumphant story of people who found a way to be light in the midst of darkness was told in musical form during Canterbury Choral Society’s recent performance of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” at the Civic Center Music Hall.
I was invited to attend the event by Edie Roodman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City. She said the Jewish Federation was collaborating with Canterbury Choral Society for the concert-drama in conjunction with Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Depending on who you talk to, Yom Hashoah was April 15 or 16.
I have been to many Yom Hashoah observances in the Oklahoma City metro area, each one stirring in its own way.
“Defiant Requiem” also touched my soul as it brought a truly touching story to vivid life through the voices of the choral society, an amazing orchestra, the filmed interviews of Holocaust survivors who performed Verdi’s Requiem and the words of Murry Sidlin, the guest conductor and the creator of “Defiant Requiem.”
The concert-drama transported me and the rest of the audience to the Terezin Concentration Camp during World War II where a courageous prisoner named Rafael Schachter, a graduate of the Prague Conservatory, organized a 150-person Jewish choir which performed Verdi’s Requiem 16 times between 1943 and 1944.
Sidlin created “Defiant Requiem” as a tribute to Schachter and the Terezin choir and it was that. The concert-drama stood as testimony to what many people already know — that faced with the bleakest of circumstances, faith may transcend darkness and shine the light of hope in a situation that appears hopeless.
Sidlin (pictured) explained that Schachter had to recreate his choir at least twice when many choir members were sent to other places like Auschwitz.
And yet, Schachter moved forward and the music continued.
Four months after their final performance, Schachter and most of the choir were deported to Auschwitz. According to Sidlin, Schachter survived Auschwitz but is believed to have died on a death march in spring 1945 at the age of 39.
So the Canterbury Choral Society along with four soloists, Oklahoma City University’s Chamber Choir and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, took us back to that concentration camp where hope defiantly and triumphantly burned in the hearts and voices of Jewish prisoners. The fact that the prisoners, led by the indomitable Schachter, were able to perform Verdi’s powerful and musically challenging Requiem while being held captive was an act of defiance against their captors, the Nazis, Sidlin said.
Like me, Roodman said she found the production moving.
“I could fee it all through my body and soul,” she said. “And the ending, when we were left with the dark stage and just the violinist — you could feel it struck a chord with everyone.”
And she praised the collaboration between the Jewish Federation and the choral society for making the concert-drama a reality for metro residents.
“I think it was a crowning moment with Canterbury,” Roodman said.
Kay Holt, executive director of the Canterbury Choral Society, said “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” the final concert of the choral society’s season, was important in many ways.
Verdi’s Requiem (the text of the Requiem is part of the living liturgy of the Catholic Church. A requiem is a memorial for the dead.) is a great piece of music by itself, she said.
And then, Holt said the “Defiant Requiem” concert-drama created by Sidlin imparts powerful themes that are very relevant today, just as they were in Schachter’s time.
“With all the things going on in our world today, the inhumane acts going on all over the world, we wanted to call people’s attention to this huge universal theme of intolerance that we still have today,” Holt said.
She said this includes intolerance of people who look differently, who think differently and who have different religious beliefs. Intolerance is in our schools in the form of bullying and even may be found in the bitter disagreements in the nation’s Congress, Holt added.
She said her hope is that people experienced “Defiant Requiem” and the themes and messages it conveyed in multifaceted layers.
“With every concert we always try to deepen the experience by adding layers to the production,” she said.
“We want people to experience multiple layers so you become a part of the experience.”
It’s my opinion that they succeeded — on a grand scale.