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Defiance and hope

A conductor’s passion recreates a Holocaust tale with a score by Verdi

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Maestro Murry Sidlin (Photo by Josef Rabara)

Terezin's concentration camp was a massive illusion, a fictitious haven of enlightenment masking the horrors of the Holocaust.

There the Nazis created a façade, a so-called "model Jewish settlement," to convince the world the camp was filled with concerts, lectures and creativity. The truth, however, was genocide.

Yet within that façade, hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners seized upon the illusion to reclaim some glimmer of their stolen humanity.

Part of that tale is told in "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin," a symphonic tour de force created by Maestro Murry Sidlin. The multimedia concert/drama memorializes the courage and resilience that transcended heinous starvation, disease, cruelty and worse.

The work has its Chicago premiere at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at Symphony Center. Production costs have been underwritten by the Crown Family and Pritzker Family Philanthropic Fund. All other gifts and proceeds will directly support the Jewish Federation's Holocaust Community Services program , which provides sustenance, dignity and hope to local Holocaust survivors in need.

Sidlin's production brings to life the incredible achievement of Maestro Raphael Schächter and the choir of fellow Terezin inmates he assembled. Working from a single smuggled score, they memorized and then performed Verdi's daunting "Requiem Mass" 16 times, including once before senior SS officials.

Sidlin recounts their defiance through a performance of the complete "Requiem," coupled with on-stage drama, video of Terezin chorus survivors, and clips from the Nazis' 1944 propaganda film showcasing the camp.

The Chicago presentation features the Chicago Philharmonic, Emmy Award-winner Jeremy Piven and Emmy and Tony Award nominee Tovah Feldshuh, the Chicago Vocal Artists Ensemble conducted by Cheryl Frazes Hill, soprano Jennifer Check, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor Zach Borichevsky and bass Nathan Stark.

The event is chaired by Virginia and Norman Bobins and Karyn and Bill Silverstein.

Advance tickets are available through sponsorship; call 312.444.2893. The box office opens in January.

Through Sidlin's Defiant Requiem Foundation, the concert -- first performed in Seattle in 2002 -- has been presented nearly 40 times, to more than 65,000 people all over the world, including Berlin, Jerusalem -- and Terezin.

"When you perform great music in a great hall and everyone is well-dressed and well-fed," Sidlin said, it is "a lot different from doing the Verdi "Requiem" in a concentration camp."

Sidlin discovered what Schächter had done through a brief mention in a decades-old book he found at a sidewalk sale. But the idea that Schächter could recruit 150 exhausted prisoners who worked long days with little nutritious food, teach them the lengthy and complex score in a dark basement, and then stage a magnificent performance -- all under constant threat of terror -- seemed impossible.

That led to a years-long investigation Sidlin describes as a form of "forensic musicology." Over time, he found a couple of singers from the chorus and a niece of Schächter's, who was living in Jerusalem.

"I wanted to learn why he did this," Sidlin said. And the singers explained that Schächter said that "through music, we can sing to the Nazis what we can't say."

Schächter's vision, however, was not immediately embraced by his fellow Jews. The governing council, fearing that a performance so steeped in Catholic liturgy would cause arguments among prisoners and prompt a Nazi response, told him to stop. But Schächter argued that the work went far beyond Christian themes.

Sung by prisoners rather than worshippers, the "Requiem's" lyrics, with references such as "nothing will remain unavenged" and "Liberate me," became a condemnation of their oppressors.

Through the music, the prisoners responded to the worst of mankind with the best. It was an act not just of defiance, but of hope, Sidlin said.

Schächter's efforts reflected the contradiction that was Terezin. Amid unconscionable horror an incredibly rich cultural life thrived, one that fostered a contemporary composers studio, some 1,000 musical performances, and 2,400 lectures covering all manner of topics.

Through that, Sidlin said, Jewish prisoners modeled dignity acquired through the service, spirituality, civility and harmony.

Sidlin said he always had great respect for survivors, but through his journey "I have moved from respect to reverence."

Toward end of "Defiant Requiem," Sidlin noted, the narrator says that through this music, the prisoners found great faith, and never lost it.

If you asked, "Did you feel you had been forsaken by God?" the response always was, "God was with us."

"The question was not, 'Where was God?', but "Where was Man?' "

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