On the eve of his 1944 deportation to Auschwitz from the Czech transit camp of Terezín (formerly Theresienstadt), composer Viktor Ullmann penned a steely valediction to his imprisonment. "Terezín was and is for me a school of form," wrote Ullmann. "The material side of life did not trouble us before, because we had the beautiful comfort of form--that magic of civilization--to assist us in the act of creation. But here, despite conditions of total resistance, one has to constantly reshape matter into form." And while in Terezín's hard school, insisted Ullmann, "we did not sit down by the waters of Babylon and cry." Instead, Ullmann and his fellow artists and intellectuals of the camp chose to repay their captors with the hard currency of defiant creativity. At the same time, future generations became the benefactors of an immortal example of how dignity, hope and beauty can endure the very darkest storms of barbarism.
To Oregon Symphony associate conductor Murry Sidlin, valiant resistance on the part of its imprisoned artists was the most important legacy of Terezín, in particular the legacy of the sixteen performances of Verdi's Requiem Mass produced there in 1943-44 by the Prague choral conductor and opera coach, Raphael Schächter. This weekend, Sidlin, along with the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Opera chorus, soloists, actors and video clips, offers a performance of the Verdi Requiem inspired by the bravery of Schächter and Terezín's other creative spirits, who before their deaths in the gas chambers flung a lesson in bravery into the faces of their Nazi tormentors.
The program, Defiant Requiem, conceived and co-written by Sidlin, premieres Saturday at 8 pm at the Portland Expo Center, with an additional performance on Sunday. It will be taped by Oregon Public Broadcasting for future national broadcast by PBS.
Touted before the civilized world as a refuge for Jewish artists and intellectuals, with its own Jewish "Council of Elders," Terezín was in reality one of the most vicious of the many Potemkin villages devised by Hitler's regime. "In some ways, Terezín was worse than Auschwitz," said Sidlin in a recent interview, "because the reality of Auschwitz was--you live or you die. It was the gas chambers or hard labor. Terezín was just this terrible deceitfulness on all levels. It had all the elements of the other camps, minus the gas chambers--which they started building toward the end of the camp's existence. Meanwhile, here these people were, cold and hungry, with no medical attention, little basic hygiene, living amongst disease and death all the time. Yet over the four years of the camp, the prisoners gave more than two thousand lectures, performances of concert versions of The Bartered Bride, The Magic Flute, Tosca, recitals, and so on."
Esteemed pianist and Terezín survivor Edith Steiner-Kraus told Sidlin that "never in her life has she felt as useful and fulfilled as a musician as when she, as a prisoner, played every night for the other prisoners." Another survivor described these evenings of listening to Bach and Schubert as a "desperate experience," the equivalent of a starving person lunging for a scrap of bread. "We will never know music that way," Sidlin said. "We ride the surface. They got to the truth."
Defiant Requiem doesn't aim to authentically reproduce Schächter's performances--an impossible task in any case. No death train awaits these performers, no audience of smirking Nazi officials sits listening to them. The battered old piano Schächter used for accompaniment will dissolve into the full orchestra Terezín never had. But Sidlin wants listeners to take away something that has not changed since Schächter produced this most Christian of compositions, sung by Jewish prisoners for an audience of Wotan-worshippers in one of the Nazi's most infernal torture chambers--recognition of the uncommon heroism of Schächter and his singers. "Here was a man," said Sidlin, "who surrounded himself with people who were willing to affirm*as the Old Testament admonishes, 'Therefore, choose life.' They may have been captive, but they were not defeated."
"The whole story of the Holocaust," Sidlin added, "is, in essence, the story of ordinary people who became extraordinary under any number of circumstances. I want to make Schächter a hero in people's minds and hearts because he proved that great art can serve humankind in an extraordinary way. And I hope that when anybody who hears this performance hears the Requiem in the future, they will always make room in their hearts to think of Raphael and of the truly extraordinary people of Terezín."
The Oregon Symphony at the Portland Expo Center, Bldg. E, 2060 N Marine Drive, 228-1353. 8 pm Saturday- Sunday, April 20- 21. $25.
: "Sparks of Glory: The Chamber Music of Terez'n," McCready Hall, Taylor- Meade Performing Arts Center at Pacific University, 2043 College Way, Forest Grove. 8 pm Wednesday, April 17. Repeated at The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. 2 pm Sunday, April 21. 228-1353. $15 (students and seniors)-$20.
: The Music of Terez'n, Guild Theatre, 829 SW 9th Ave., 221-1156. 7 pm Thursday, April 18. $6.50.