We took our seats at the back of the Segerstrom Concert Hall and placed our things beneath our chairs. The symphony began with soft choral voices that became an uproar.
I attended the Pacific Symphony’s performance of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” performed at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Tuesday. It was a stunning rendition of Verdi’s Requiem Mass first performed by imprisoned Jews at the Terezin Concentration Camp during World War II in protest to their Nazi captors.
In 1941, Czech conductor Rafi Schachter was imprisoned at Terezin. He later died during the Nazi death marches mere months before prisoners were saved. While imprisoned, Schacter maintained his commitment to music and the hope it gives by teaching his fellow captives. His most well remembered work was Verdi’s “Requiem.”
The orchestra and choir wore all black, as did the conductor, Murry Sidelin, and four opera singers. The choir sat in pews upholstered with vibrant red velvet. As we listened to the music our eyes wandered over the crowd of neatly standing singers to find faces interspersed and moving with the effort of their song.
As the symphony came to quiet, an onstage screen began to play video of Holocaust survivors from the Terezin choir. The videos played intermittently throughout the performance and provided firsthand accounts about Rafi Schachter, who as a Jewish prisoner at Terezin taught 150 starving, overworked Jews Verdi’s “Requiem” from memory as a message of resistance against their captors.
A member of his choir described their work as "good against evil, music against life or death."
Light tinkling piano played in front of the growing, echoing choir. It was chilling the way the choir reverberated through our ears and down our spines. Voice actors stood at different parts of the performance and portrayed Schachter and those he survived alongside at Terezin.
The requiem is booming and imposing, meant to vibrate through our bones and make us remember we have them. I can imagine the pleading eyes of prisoners hoping some shred of humanity could be touched in Nazi soldiers and their visitors as they sang for their lives.
Voices leapt between instruments, giving the sense that spirits bounded from every which way. The voices sounded like pleas, like memories of better times and fears of hard times coming — Latin apparitions of the throats whose voices were heard but whose pleas fell on deaf ears.
We felt anguish in the notes of this symphony but through some movements we were transported to a place of lightness and hope that is unparalleled. The audience thus is attentively enthralled in the symphony depiction of hope despite tragic loss.
Tones from orchestra instruments lulled, then sparked alive, sending chills over the back of my head and down my spine. The conductor gave the sense he was chasing after orchestra players to have them account for some imagined offense. His white hair bobbed like clouds as he moved to keep up.
A member of Schachter’s choir at Terezin said, "the music is redemption," of the performances they accomplished while imprisoned.
Upon hearing the Jewish prisoners’ performance of Verdi’s “Requiem,” a Nazi soldier reportedly said, "those crazy Jews singing their own requiem."
At times the symphony yielded angelic tones and at others dissonant strings that suddenly whisked together to create a robust quiver of sound. The choral voices seemed like judgement, placed behind the orchestra as testament that their anguish would no longer play unheard.
As choir and orchestra symphony players silently moved offstage, a video played of the ravages of the Holocaust and provided information about those killed in the Terezin Concentration Camp and Ghetto.
One by one, symphony players left the stage. Last to leave were the conductor, a clarinet and finally, a violin. The exit felt like losing voices little by little. It felt like helplessness, beautiful though it was.
Last the violin stopped playing. A black and white image on screen requested a moment of silence in honor of Rafi Schachter and his chorus, instead of applause.
After an hour and a half of intense emotional music and being encased in the cacophonous din of choral singers, ending silently in memoriam felt like being in a pitch black cave. The audience, cautiously silent in their exodus, were somber in their quiet.