Six years ago, at Catholic University in Washington, there was an unusual presentation of Giuseppe Verdi's monumental Requiem for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The last notes of the score gave way to very different music, coming softly from the choristers. As they filed off the stage and left the hall, they softly intoned a chant from the Kaddish of the Jewish liturgy.
When those sounds, too, faded away, there was no applause from the audience. Only some muffled sobs could be heard in the darkened room.
That extraordinary scene sums up the power of "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin," a multimedia concert devised by Murry Sidlin, the Baltimore-born conductor who will lead a long-sold-out performance of the work this week at the Kennedy Center with the Catholic University Chorus and other forces.
"This is my personal mission," says Sidlin, 70, who just finished an eight-year tenure as a dean of CU's school of music.
Terezin, which the Nazis called Theresienstadt, was a concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia where an extraordinary number of Jewish scholars and artists were held, most of them only until being sent to Auschwitz. It was also the site of a notorious propaganda film, made to show how "humanely" the Jews were being treated. A portion of that film, from June 1944, shows prisoners performing Verdi's Requiem in front of International Red Cross officials and a contingent of Nazi brass.
Sidlin, who started his career as assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra nearly 40 years ago, first came across the remarkable story of Verdi at Terezin in the late 1990s. He was on the faculty of University of Minnesota's school of music at the time.
"It was like being struck by lightning," he says. "It was a wonderful April day in Minneapolis, and I was walking down a street past a bookstore that had a sale rack outside. This is absolutely true. I reached in and pulled out a book called 'Music in Terezin' [by Joza Karas]."
Sidlin randomly opened a page and started reading a short chapter about a man named Rafael Schaecter.
"He was a Romanian-born Czech citizen, an opera coach and conductor," Sidlin says. "He put together in Terezin a voluntary chorus of 150. He only had one score of the Verdi Requiem and taught the music by rote. He gave 16 performances between late September 1943 and June 1944.
"I know what it takes for amateurs to sing the Verdi Requiem under the best of circumstances, but can you imagine doing something this under those conditions? I kept asking myself, 'What are these Jews singing a work of the Catholic liturgy in a place where they were imprisoned because they were Jewish?'"
Sidlin, a congenial man with a very conductorlike silver mane, grows more impassioned as he talks, in between sips of decaf coffee in a downtown Baltimore greasy spoon.
"I searched libraries for more information and found a lot about the arts in Terezin," he says. "There were 1,000 concerts given in the camp. There were 2.400 lectures on every conceivable subject, given by 535 prisoners. It became what I call the accidental university."
Schaecter conducted performances of several works, including oratorios and operas. He saw the Requiem "as a way they could sing to the Nazis what they could not say to them. The point was to offer hope and courage and spiritual reassurance," Sidlin says. "Nowhere was the Verdi Requiem better understood by singers."
When the prisoners sang of the pending "day of wrath, the day of judgment," or sang of how souls, as "promised of old to Abraham and his seed," would be delivered "from the pains of hell," the double meaning had to be almost unbearably poignant.
Sidlin's "Defiant Requiem" incorporates actors, commentary, film and recollections by survivors of the Terezin choir. Some of those survivors will be present for the Kennedy Center performance.
In 1998, Sidlin met pianist Edith Steiner-Kraus, then in her 90s. She had been at Terezin and had heard the Requiem many times.
"I asked her 'How did the chorus sound?' and she looked at me and said, 'The superficial nature of your question bothers me.' I began to schvitz," Sidlin says, using the piquant Yiddish word for sweating profusely. "She said, 'You want to know about the rhythmic precision, the balance of voices, the phrasing, all these musicianly things, as if any of that mattered. We were so far inside the music that we were at Verdi's table.'"
Sidlin found her reply overwhelming, as he did the description from another survivor who recalled what it was like to be in the audience for a performance of the Requiem, how "we listened desperately" to the music, with the same focus and intensity they would have had running "to grab a piece of bread someone had dropped."
"The next time you are at a concert," Sidlin says, "look around and see if anyone is listening desperately."
The conductor has led presentations of "Defiant Requiem" at the Terezin camp site itself and in several cities (5,000 turned out in Budapest). On Sidlin's wish list for future performances: Berlin, Jerusalem and the Vatican. A documentary film about the project is nearly done; PBS has expressed an interest in airing it.
During Sidlin's time at Catholic University, he has presented "Defiant Requiem," Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" and Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" on the campus, all daunting challenges vividly realized.
How did a nice Jewish conductor end up in Catholic academe? Sidlin laughs. "Do you know how many times I've asked myself that question?" he says. "I was a consultant for them when they were looking for a dean, but they offered me the position."
The university has no regrets.
"He's a great guy, a class act," says CU Provost James Brennan. "He is a very accomplished artist, and his artistry is, in and of itself, a model for the students. But first and foremost, he has a genuine concern for the students and their success. He's definitely been a major constructive force in our school."
Although he has decided to step down as music school dean, Sidlin will remain a full professor there. He'll also continue to champion the cause of keeping music fresh and vital for musicians and audiences alike. He has been doing so during a long career that, in addition to university work, has included stints as music director of the New Haven (Conn.) Symphony and resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony.
Sidlin showed a musical affinity early on. During his high school years (he attended Forest Park), he played in the marching band for the Colts. He went on to study at the Peabody, which will bestow its Distinguished Alumni Award on him next spring.
"I had just started on my doctorate when I got the job in 1971 with the BSO as assistant conductor to [Sergiu] Comissiona," Sidlin says. "A couple years later, I was invited by Antal Dorati to be assistant at the National Symphony. Do you think it was easy to leave a Romanian for a Hungarian? Comissiona didn't speak to me for two weeks. He was really ticked. But one Sunday morning, there was a knock at the door and there he was, holding two bottles. He just said, 'Here — wine for traitors.'"
Like many of those in the orchestral world, Sidlin is concerned about the future, what with dwindling audiences, scant music education in school, etc.
"When you can walk up to the box office at [a major orchestra] and buy a row, not just a seat, something is radically wrong," he says. "Orchestras are verifying Einstein's definition of lunacy — to do something over and over the same way, expecting a different result."
Sidlin advocates shaking up the staid subscription concert format.
"We're unimaginative and we're cowardly, all over the country," the conductor says, quickly adding: "Not in Baltimore. Marin [Alsop] is very adventurous and has great ideas. I'd just like to see much more. The special event has got to be the norm. We have to change the whole nature and notion of how an orchestra presents itself.
"If we're going to go down with the ship doing things the way we always did," he says, "what have we proven?"
If you go
"Defiant Requiem" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. Sold out. To be placed on a waiting list, email DRTerezin@gmail.com. A panel discussion, "Terezin Remembered," featuring survivors from the camp, will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the Katzen Arts Center of American University in Washington. Free, but reservations required. Call 202-885-2423 or e-mail email@example.com.