Conductor Murry Sidlin, creator of 'Defiant Requiem'

Conductor Murry Sidlin, creator of 'Defiant Requiem' (April 24, 2013)

If you don't have a ticket to tonight's repeat of "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin" at the Peabody Institute, try using all your powers of persuasion and influence to get one, or just consider sneaking in. It's an important event.

Tuesday night marked the Baltimore premiere of this "concert-drama," which traces the history of the astonishing performances of Verdi's Requiem given 16 times by prisoners at the Terezin concentration camp (the Nazi name for the place was Theresienstadt).

Created by Baltimore-born conductor Murry Sidlin, the multimedia production combines video of interviews with Terezin survivors who sang in the chorus painstakingly molded and directed by Rafael Schachter (he was shipped to his death at Auschwitz in 1944; vintage film, including the hideous Nazi propaganda "documentary" made at the camp; two actors; and periodic commentary by Sidlin.

Interwoven through all of that is a complete performance of the searing Verdi score.

When I first encountered "Defiant Requiem" in 2004 at Catholic University, I questioned the balance between the music and the rest -- especially the idea of interrupting the Requiem several times, often abruptly, with dialogue. 

I questioned the balance again last night. I also wondered if some of the dramatic elements in this incredible story needed to be underlined so often, and if some of the dialogue (live and on film) was too repetitive. Some judicious trimming would, I think, make the total experience even stronger. (More in the way of projected translations of the Requiem text could be helpful to the audience.)

That said, I was still deeply affected by the sheer emotional force of it all. Besides, as I pointed out nine years ago, the unsettling interruptions in the musical flow offer reminders of the interruptions experienced routinely in Terezin -- Schachter's chorus underwent a good deal of turnover as members were shipped off. 

On Tuesday night, Sidlin's bracing, deeply felt approach to the Requiem generated vivid singing by the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus and Peabody Singers, mostly impressive playing by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. The famous "Dies Irae" passage proved truly shattering.

One of the most inspired elements in the production is the occasional use of only a well-worn piano as accompaniment, which was all the chorus at Terezin had for their performances of the Requiem. Rita Sloan delivered the keyboard part beautifully. 

The demands of the grand operatic-level vocal solos were most sturdily met by mezzo Tia Price and bass-baritone Jeffrey Martin. Rheda Becker, as the Lecturer, and Jonathan Palevsky, as Schachter, delivered their spoken lines eloquently.

The postlude to "Defiant Requiem" is an inspired touch of theater, and it was handled quite affectingly last night. It's a fitting way to honor the Jews who once found in Verdi's setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead a means to express their determination and their dignity, a means to imagine, however briefly, their deliverance.