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Music of defiance

Terezin, or Theresienstadt, was the Nazis' "show camp" - a concentration camp where they showed the Red Cross how well their prisoners lived (as long as visitors were there and cameras were rolling). But though filled with privation, sickness, starvation and worse off-camera, it nonetheless represented a nexus of creative resistance, with performances of everything from children's opera (Hans Krasa's "Brundibar") to the Verdi Requiem. Rafael Schaechter, the young Czech conductor who led the latter, had to keep training new chorus members as existing ones were carted off to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

"We can sing to the Nazis things we can't say," Schaechter told his choristers.

The story of this Requiem - performed 16 times at Theresienstadt before Schaechter, too, was taken away - has occupied Murry Sidlin for years. Sidlin, the former dean and still a faculty member at the School of Music of the Catholic University of America, came up with the idea for a hybrid performance called "The Defiant Requiem," a kind of docudrama interspersing movements of Verdi's masterwork with readings, spoken dialogue, and film footage. He first performed it in 2002 in Oregon; It was later televised on PBS, and came to Washington in a performance at CUA in 2004. But it's a story that can always use retelling; and it is returning to the Kennedy Center - with the Washington National Opera Orchestra, the City Choir of Washington, members of the CUA Chorus, a quartet of vocal soloists and two actors - on Wednesday, October 6.

Sidlin and Stuart Eizenstat, a lawyer who played a role in both the Carter and Clinton White Houses, are working together to continue developing the project. A full-length documentary film is in the works, and there are also plans for a summer festival at Terezin. The Defiant Requiem Foundation, which they founded, is devoted to honoring the scholars and writers who were imprisoned at Theresienstadt.

A panel at American University on Monday, October 4 at 7 p.m. will offer in-depth examinations of Theresienstadt and its survivors.

By Anne Midgette  | September 30, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Anne Midgette, Classical music  
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