In 1943 and 1944, a group of prisoners at Terezín, a Nazi concentration camp near Prague, gave 16 performances of Verdi’s magnificent “Requiem,” first for other prisoners and then for a delegation of prominent Nazis. These extraordinary events are the focus of a concert, “Defiant Requiem,” at Symphony Hall on Oct. 11.
According to Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, which is sponsoring this event with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Terezin was a unique camp where the Germans sent Jewish intellectuals from Prague, Berlin, and other cities. “Though transports constantly took the Jews away to be murdered, and despite harsh conditions, they created a genuine community, with art, magazines, and concerts. They found a way to lift their spirits through the arts,” said Nigut.
Conductor Rafael Schächter had started the choir soon after his arrival, with 300 singers. By the final “Requiem” performance, only 60 were left. Schäcter himself was taken away a few weeks after the last performance.
The Verdi “Requiem” was chosen by Schächter partly because the text, a setting of a Christian funeral Mass, actually speaks of liberation for the celebrants and of the punishments in store for the unworthy. So, even as the Nazis joked that “they are singing their own requiem,” the singers were making a very different statement.
As they had only a single copy of the score, the singers had to memorize everything.
“Defiant Requiem” was created by Murry Sidlin, a conductor and scholar, who happened across the history of Terezín in a book he found in a used bookstore, then began more intensive research.
The project includes a full concert performance of the “Requiem” together with a moving presentation about the events at Terezín. The Atlanta performance came about when Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who heads the Defiant Requiem Foundation, approached Nigut and showed him excerpts. Nigut was enthusiastic but said, “If we’re going to do this in Atlanta, why not work with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus.” Previous performances here and in Europe have utilized “pick-up” orchestras and whatever choruses were available, and it appears that this will be the first performance utilizing an orchestra and chorus of the ASO’s rank.
The ADL is sponsoring a series of related events including a reception before the concert, and "Defiant Requiem" kicks off the local celebration of ADL's 100th anniversary. For more information on the events or ADL, the website is: http://regions.adl.org/southeast.
An estimated 150,000 people passed through the Terezín camp before being taken elsewhere to be murdered. Tens of thousands were killed at the camp itself. Of those, about 15,000 were children.
Today there are fewer than 100 survivors. One of those is Ilse Reiner, an Atlanta author who will attend the performance.
Verdi's "Requiem" is one of his finest works and is generally regarded as one of the most moving settings of the Mass. Sidlin will conduct the performance. Tickets, which range from $55 to $100, are available from the ASO website, www.atlantasymphony.org, or by calling the box office at 404-733-5000.
From the “Libera Me” portion of the “Requiem”: “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fearful day, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved. When thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.”