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CHARLOTTE MAGAZINE – They Sang What They Could Not Say

SEVENTY-THREE YEARS AGO, Jewish prisoners interred at Terezin, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, used their singing of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem Mass” as a most unlikely weapon against their captors. In June 1944, 150 inmates, weakened from starvation, disease and hard labor, performed the outsized work at the Czech prison for visiting members of the International Red Cross. Their Nazi captors allowed the performance as part of a propaganda campaign to present a false picture of favorable conditions at this infamous Jewish “settlement.” Led by Rafael Schächter, a Romanian-born composer, the Jewish prisoners let the verse of Verdi’s “Requiem Mass” serve as explicit recriminations to their captors.

On Dec. 3rd, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte College of Arts & Architecture commemorates their courageous actions in presenting Defiant Requiem, a multimedia concert drama and live choral performance illuminating this artistic uprising.

“There was a commitment to sing what they couldn’t say,” Murry Sidlin, renowned conductor and Defiant Requiem creator, says. “If you look at the mass as Catholic liturgy it has one arrangement of meaning, in terms of the relationship with God. If, however you are a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi Death Camp and you read things like, ‘Nothing shall remain unavenged,’ ‘Everything shall be exposed,’ and ‘Deliver me, O Lord,’ it has a completely different meaning when sung out of defiance.”

Sidlin’s creation grew after a chance exposure to Schächter’s story and the subsequent desire to perpetuate the legacy of Terezin. The former dean of the School of Music at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Sidlin has conducted orchestras throughout the world and is a lifelong musical educator. He served on the White House Commission of Presidential Scholars and won national acclaim for the television series Music Is…, a ten-part series about music for children seen on PBS.

“This is a reminder of what mankind can be, what we know, what we sense, how we can serve each other and how we can pay homage to the best of mankind by rejecting the worst of mankind,” Sidlin says, in noting how Schächter’s work with his fellow prisoners sustained them and provided nourishment for their souls.

The work has been performed 44 times since its creation in 2002 for audiences including those in New York City, Budapest, Washington D.C., Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague and on the grounds of Terezin.

UNCC’s College of Arts & Architecture’s music department worked with Arlene Shut, the noted collaborative pianist and longtime faculty member at the Julliard School, to take Sidlin’s orchestral arrangement and use the piano as an orchestral substitute.

“The performance is as it was performed at Terezin,” says James A. Grymes, department of music chair. “With this arrangement we are establishing a model that is transportable to other small (university) music programs across the country.”

Grymes noted the performance is a continuation of the university’s Violins of Hope project, a large-scale series of programs celebrating  music of the Holocaust brought to Charlotte in 2012.

“Unlike the forced playing at Auschwitz,” says Grymes, “this wasn’t coerced music making. In Terezin, they made the music from an inner need to express themselves showing that even in the darkest of times, humanity survives.”