in: Reviews

April 28, 2015

Verdi and the Holocaust


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.”

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.
Michael J. Lutch photo

Michael J. Lutch photo


  1. This is a beautiful, well-thought-out review.

    A few comments. The “pick-up” orchestra contained a number of our well-known Boston free-lancers like Rafael Popper-Keiser, Sarah Brady, Jae Young Cosmos Lee, Katherine Kayaian, Ronald Haroutaian, Annie Rabbat, Jennifer Slowik,… and frankly, it sounded as good as the BSO in many passages, especially the part (forgive me – I forget) in which the cellos alone carry the music along. But I have to admit to a prejudice of wallowing in everything Popper-Keiser does.

    That said, the ensemble, orchestra and orchestra, were directed to play fortissimo far too many times, which was a detriment to the overall effect, especially to the intended shock and intensity of the thrice-repeated “Dies Irae.”

    Verdi’s Requiem was criticized by the Church, as we know, for being too operatic, to the supposed detriment of piety, so it was particularly fascinating that Mikolaj’s portrayal was about as “operatic” as one could achieve, especially in “Libera me.” One wonders how the visiting Red Cross panel, or anyone else, could be immune to the obvious message, but there it is.

    The most moving elements, given the point of the occasion — Terezin remembered — were those in which the chorus sang to the simple piano accompaniment (played by another local, Vytas Baksys), with the orchestra coming in after a dozen or so meassures, then going silent again, so the section could once again be heard with only the piano. It was eerily, effectively evocative.

    I had the good fortune to have been offered a seat by Rabbi Paul Levenson, of Newton, who just two weeks prior to the performance officiated at the burial of one of the intended honorees, Hana Krasa. It was an honor I will never forget. We hugged each other after the performance.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — April 28, 2015 at 9:46 pm

  2. I’d like to add two more details to Mr. Heck’s fine review.

    The words of Rafael Schächter explaining his choice of the Requiem were quoted in the program book and several times in the performance: “We shall sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.” This applies most forcefully to the line from the Dies Iræ, “Nil inultum remanebit.” “Nothing will remain unavenged.” But there were other passages where the prisoners could make the words their own, as the narration pointed out.

    It was a powerful moment at the end of the performance when all performers left the stage — the chorus members softly humming a Jewish tune as they filed through the auditorium, with a violinist accompanying it. Finally the violinist ended and walked off the stage, leaving behind emptiness and silence.

    In hindsight, it may seem that perhaps Rafael Schächter — or others — should have blurted out the truth to the Red Cross delegation, but it was a situation where survival was the rule. The future was unknowable. The duty was to get from this day to the next, and to continue to do so as long as possible.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 28, 2015 at 11:14 pm

  3. Michael Lutch just wrote to me that he took the photograph of Hana Krasa (Hana in the Pachysandra) that graced the Defiant Requiem program. He said “I have been photographing a few other survivors of Terezen and it has been one of the most rewarding work I have done.” He also provided the beautifully composed photo for this review, which I had meant to acknowledge in the above comment and therefore am delighted to do so now.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — April 29, 2015 at 8:31 am

  4. In asking if the “defiant” act was to sing the requiem for the IRC, Mr. Heck misses an important point. The true defiance wasn’t the attempted, and failed, covert communication to the IRC, but rather was the effort of these prisoners to maintain dignity by singing their thoughts right to the face of their captors, even if their captors didn’t know it. They repeated this performance many times before the IRC visit, and were compelled to sing for the IRC. Their valiant plea for help failed. Their fighting to the end did not. The defiance was throughout.

    Comment by Paul Rosenstrach — April 29, 2015 at 5:03 pm

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