SIDLIN’S MULTIMEDIA CREATION AT WOODRUFF ARTS CENTER

Dark and painful memories of the Holocaust hung about the Woodruff Arts Center late last week. The melancholy mood filled symphony hall following the final notes of a special concert sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

"Defiant Requiem" creator and conductor Murry Sidlin leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in ADL-sponsored concert earlier this month.

“Defiant Requiem” creator and conductor Murry Sidlin leads the Atlanta Symphonyh Orchestra in ADL-sponsored concert earlier this month.

The Atlanta program, “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” has been in the works for a year or so. The experience – a bit of theater neatly wrapped up in an operatic score filled with celestial melodies, fire and brimstone – played to a full house.

The artistic approach was novel: a euphonic blend of classical music backed by a massive and exuberant chorus; a fine quartet of soloists and a couple of narrators on stage; and Holocaust survivors on tape to help the audience understand the history and context of the work.

Village Becomes a Ghetto

Terezin was a small garrison village near Prague that the Nazis turned into a ghetto during World War II. Life was difficult there and across Eastern Europe; indeed, there was a daily struggle for survival with little food and medicine.

Both the Germans and the elements were brutal. Thousands died of starvation and disease and thousands more were transported to Auschwitz, the nearby death camp where at least 1 million Jews became part of Hitler’s “final solution.”

Composer Rafael Schächter walked into this madness and managed to bring both light and hope to his fellow inmates. His story is remarkable, filled with the stuff of legend. Before the outbreak of war, Schächter was already making a name for himself as a conductor, a man of exceptional talent who had a charismatic personality.

As the horrors of life took hold in Terezin, Schächter not only pulled together a chorus of 150 inmates, but managed to teach them Verdi’s “Requiem.” The story goes that all learned from a single score and were accompanied by just a legless upright piano.

Schächter and his chorus performed the requiem 16 times, often just for their fellow inmates but occasionally for SS officers, German officials and other dignitaries. The performances were quietly spectacular, a bit of spiritual light in a dark and lonely place: For a few hours, survivors report they were no longer victims, but defiant men and women holding on to the idea expressed by Schächter that they could “sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

Moving and Melancholy

“Defiant Requiem,” the multimedia concert-drama performed in Atlanta last week, was created by Murry Sidlin. The founder and president of The Defiant Requiem Foundation, Sidlin also served as conductor for the two-hour affair, managing to lead both the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the symphony orchestra chorus while handling much of the dialogue that detailed the horrors that played out at Terezin nearly seven decades ago.

It was a subdued cross-section of metro Atlanta’s Jewish community that sat quietly in Symphony Hall, caught up in the iconic work of Verdi that had been transformed into something even bigger by Sidlin’s homage to Schächter and the victims of the Holocaust.

Moments before, many in the audience had been feasting and schmoozing at a pre-concert buffet and honoring two Atlantans – Linda Selig and Ben Johnson – for their good works in the community. In contrast, a melancholy tone took hold in the final moments of the performance as the bombastic, soaring notes of Verdi gave way to the achingly sad melody of Oseh Shalom, the Hebrew prayer that plaintively calls out for peace.

Then, surprisingly, members of the chorus began making their way from the stage, followed by the soloists and members of the symphony. As the stage grew dark, only a single violinist remained, playing the final mournful notes of Oseh Shalom and surrounded by the fading totes of the requiem and the lingering ghosts of the Holocaust.

BY RON FEINBERG / Web Editor