Writing on yesterday’s Symphony Hall presentation, “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín” in terms of music alone is inadequate, given the included narration, interviews, and video. Then there are the weighty human aspects of the story which are integral to the show’s effectiveness.
But let us start with the easiest and most familiar element, the musical performance. Defiant Requiem contains wisps of many pieces woven for effect into a musical tapestry (more on that later) but the main focus was a complete performance of Verdi’s Requiem, for which conductor Murry Sidlin led the “Orchestra of Terezín Remembrance”, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, soloists Aga Mikolaj, Ann McMahon Quintero, Marc Heller, and Nathan Stark, as well as guest concertmaster and solo violinist Herbert Greenberg.
The movements of the Requiem were interspersed with narration, video, and voice-overs but by the end of the evening the entire work had been performed. The TFC was in fine form, singing as normal from memory and wonderfully balanced. The soloists likewise were exceptional; Stark’s resonant bass baritone vibrated and pulsed as if the song were coming from the earth itself, and Heller’s clear spinto allowed for lyric tenderness and power to balance with the quartet and the orchestra. Mikolaj and Quintero were exceptional, the former possessing an ingratiating soprano and the latter exhibiting an elemental, mysterious color palette. The only problem encountered was when, in the Recordare, the two women sing in parallel octaves—each enthralling, their voices were yet so different in timbre that Verdi’s unified effect was unachievable. Then there was the orchestra which carried a name but was at least partially a pick up ensemble (and most likely was for most of the show’s world tour); they played with passion, and Greenberg helped hold together the complex performance at times, but it was evident that this was not the BSO.
Which brings us to the second point, did that matter? Though the orchestra may not have been the perfectly polished sea of sound Boston audiences have come to expect from their beloved BSO, one of the main musical points of the evening was to take the listener inside the world of music made by diverse strangers. There were no overt problems, just rough edges. Surely the performances at Terezín had rough points too. What I heard reminded me of the Concert for Freedom in 1989, when Bernstein led performances of Beethoven 9th on both sides of the Berlin wall. That concert was not technically perfect but conveyed palpable passion and intent which reminded one of why music is so important. In this vein Defiant Requiem was magnificent.
There are aspects of the multimedia that could be improved on though. In the current musical climate, it is common for multimedia elements to become part of a musical performance, and it seems after 13 years, some of Defiant Requiem’s content or style could be updated to reflect the very best of recent technological developments. When the work began, and the audience heard via voice-over how Terezín’s high concentration of artists, musicians, and intellectuals resulted in a varied and often cacophonous musical atmosphere, certain live musicians slowly joined in playing different works until the whole quilt—a Bach chaccone here, a Schubert song there, became a pulsating aura framing the story to come. This was very effective. Sidlin’s narration was impassioned and honest (reminding one of Bernstein again). The times when Verdi’s work dissolved from the full orchestra to an upright piano, and the times the choir sang with this piano (echoing the original performing conditions) was haunting and inspired. The video though, however moving at times, seemed clunky and out of date in its presentation. Switching on, switching off, shot, counter-shot, with boxy, uninspired title cards…its content, as much part of the performance as the music, was ill served by its awkward PowerPointedness. Perhaps an updating to a more suave and nuanced video scheme is in order, especially since the intent is draw the audience into that vanished world.
Which brings us to the last point—why Defiant Requiem? Why this concert tour, what were the intended take-aways? How can we connect with those caught in the horrific inhumanity of the Nazi camp system? The story of Terezín prisoner Rafael Schächter assembling and conducting a choir of inmates in Verdi’s Requiem 16 times within the camp, even as their numbers were diminished by those sent to their deaths, touches the soul of every musician. Would I, the musician thinks, have the courage to “Sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land”, as the psalmist says?
Schächter and his choir performed the Requiem for the International Red Cross when they visited the camp in the hopes that they would read between the lines and realize the Nazis had staged their visit and these people were indeed prisoners in mortal danger, but this effect was lost on the Red Cross. If this act was the inspiration for the title ‘Defiant’ Requiem, it failed. Schächter would have been shot if he had shouted out the truth of Terezín to the Red Cross observers before he was ushered off stage. True, but he was ultimately killed in Auschwitz in 1945 anyway, and the concerts had no effect either on his Nazi captors or the fight for liberation.
So what was the point of enshrining this musical moment of Holocaust history? As with history, there is no clear answer. Unlike staged drama, real life seldom turns out as neat, or obvious, or brimming with meaning. Standing in the shadow of history, we must light our own way forward. There was a haunting quality to last night made more poignant by its seeming randomness. The Defiant Requiem Foundation, which sponsored the event, was honoring two of the original choir members who survived the camps and helped prepare much of the material. Their names are Edgar and Hana Krasa. The Foundation wrote a heartfelt tribute of thanks to Hana in the program, which was originally scheduled for January. It was postponed due to snow until yesterday. Hana died on April 13th. It was specifically mentioned that, despite Hana’s passing, the tribute was reprinted without alteration in the program, appearing as it did when her own eyes could read it. This revealed in an unintended way, perhaps, the overwhelming confluence of past, present and future. Hana’s own words stood on the page in silent testimony to her life, the lives of her fellow prisoners, and all of our lives as well: “All I did was survive, and then tell my story.”