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Amongst the Jewish prisoners in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Second World War were distinguished scholars, scientists and artists. Despite adversity, dire inhumane circumstances and deportations to the death camp of Auschwitz, these prisoners organized many notable cultural events. Amongst the most memorable were performances of Verdi's Requiem under the direction of the Romanian conductor Rafael Schächter. This remarkable individual had at his disposal only a single printed copy of Verdi's composition. Thus every one of his 150-member chorus had to memorize the complex score by heart. Since there was no orchestra, accompaniment was provided by a legless upright piano propped up on boxes.
Rehearsals were held after the day's work. Choir members were exhausted and hungry but under Schächter's inspiration and charisma, these Jewish prisoners rose magnificently to the occasion. There were a total of 16 performances of the Requiem including one before Adolph Eichmann and a Red Cross delegation. The choir was decimated twice by deportations and the indefatigable Schächter had to recruit new volunteers and begin once again the process of teaching them their parts. Eventually Rafael Schächter himself was deported to Auschwitz where he was murdered. The Verdi Requiem was the prisoners' way of "singing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them," and represents a sterling and unique example of the answer to man's inhumanity to man.
Some years ago, the conductor Murry Sidlin, a former Dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University of America in Washington DC, decided to commemorate these performances and to this end he conceived, directed and made commentaries in what is now known as The Defiant Requiem. This received a performance at the recent Israel Festival.
Requiem by Alex Irvine.JPG
Sidlin has conducted The Defiant Requiem in several locations, most notably at Theresienstadt itself. His production takes the form of a multimedia drama combining Verdi's Requiem with video footage projected onto two large screens featuring spoken dialog from survivors of Schächter's original chorus as well as videos of the deportation and other unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Besides the video clips, there were also spoken commentaries by Murry Sidlin as well as from Israeli actors Sasson Gabai and Yona Elian. Dialog and videos were introduced between the movements of the Requiem. Only during the Agnes Dei (Lamb of God) was the music accompanied by Nazi propaganda clips about the camp.
An air of solemnity and dignity pervaded the whole experience. No applause greeted choir, orchestra, soloists and conductor on their entrance. Instead the audience were treated with a section of Bach's Chaconne, the concluding section of his second Partita for Violin played by the solitary first violinist of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. This was perhaps a reminder to the audience of the rich and varied cultural environment in Theresienstadt despite the inhuman and barbaric conditions. Most of the sections of the Requiem were introduced on the piano, reminiscent of the Schächter performances when this represented the only musical accompaniment.
The most accomplished soloists were soprano Ira Bertman and tenor Yotam Cohen. Particularly noteworthy was Bertman's contribution to the concluding Libera Me (Deliver Me) section which she sang with passion and much conviction. The Kuhn Choir (Czech Republic) also acquitted themselves well. On occasion, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra sounded somewhat ponderous and laboured. However these minor deficiencies paled into insignificance when one considered the overall impression of this unforgettable emotional and musical experience.
At the end of the performance, darkness descended and there was a piecing whistle-like sound, implying the departure of the trains with their hapless Jewish inmates on the way to their death at Auschwitz. Slowly and silently, choir, orchestra, soloists and conductor exited leaving the lone violinist playing Oseh Shalom part of the traditional Jewish Kaddish (Mourner's Prayer) for the dead: "He who makes peace in his high holy places may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel." There was no applause. The audience stood for a moment in total silence and then slowly exited the auditorium.
The performance was shattering and without question, one of the highlights of the recent Israel Festival. This was a most unforgettable experience, which will forever be indelibly ingrained in my psyche. This is especially relevant today with the spectre of an imminent nuclear-armed Iran, a state that officially denies the Holocaust and has repeatedly called for Israel's annihilation.
Image: Murry Sidlin conducting the Defiant Requiem. Photo courtesy of Alex Irvine.
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Careful nurturing is required to develop her formidable talent
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) featured the 12-year-old Israeli pianist, Maya Tamir, in its most recent subscription concert that was devoted to the music of Franz Joseph Haydn. This event was part of the IPO's Friday morning Intermezzo series at the Jerusalem Theater. Besides the music, the audience is also treated to coffee and cake. This concert series is introduced by well-known personalities. This time it was David Witzthum, author, pedagogue, and erudite TV editor and commentator. Witzthum gave a fascinating lecture on Haydn, replete with interesting anecdotes and quotes from Haydn, putting him into context to the music of the era and emphasizing his profound influence on the next generation of composers.
Maya Tamir played Haydn's piano concerto in D Major (Hob.XVIII:11). As can be seen on YouTube, this particular concerto is a frequent vehicle for prodigies. Tamir gave an insightful performance, her interpretation belying her age. At the outset, she was somewhat overwhelmed and displayed some anxiety, which probably accounts for some inconsistencies on the keyboard. However, she rapidly settled in. This was not a routine perfunctory run-through of a popular work, but a subtle interpretation with appropriate changes in tempo and dynamics. Her crescendos and diminuendos came at the right places and she blended in beautifully with the orchestra.
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One could argue that the IPO was amiss to devote a full subscription series, comprising four concerts, to this young prodigy. To make the public aware of her exceptional talents is one thing, and certainly an occasional concert with the IPO or other orchestras would be in order. However to devote a full series requires a leap of faith and I am not sure it serves Tamir's long-term interests. All great artists begin their careers as prodigies. However not all prodigies become great artists. Careful nurturing by family, teachers and other professionals is required for her to fulfill her phenomenal talents. Too early exposure can be detrimental to her full artistic development.
Yoel Levi, currently principal conductor of the Orchestre National d'Ile de France, was on the podium and he provided sympathetic accompaniment for the soloist in the piano concerto. In the second half of the concert he gave a most respectful account of Haydn's symphony No 104, The London, the last work in this genre, which he composed.
The orchestra responded beautifully with lush string playing. Levi successfully brought out the development of Haydn as a great symphonist and under his baton, Beethoven's indebtedness to Haydn became readily apparent. There was also some lovely woodwind and brass playing in the second movement. Maybe a little lighter touch was called for in the third movement especially the trio, which sounded a bit ponderous. Levi concluded the performance with a lively account of the final allegro movement, which ended with a flourish. This was an apt conclusion to a most satisfying concert.
The young 12 year old Maya Tamir. Credit: Rami Mor.
This article was originally published in Esra Magazine, Issue No 165, 2012

About Me

Dr. Irving Spitz writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel. Some of his articles, essays and reviews can be seen at www.irvingspitz.com. Additional photographs can be seen at www.pbase.com/irvspitz. Dr Spitz holds MD, PhD and DSc degrees from the Witwatersrand University in...Read More...Read More

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