Defiant Requiem, Durham Cathedral

UK Premiere, brought to Durham by The Forge arts organisation.

28 January 2017, a day of cold bleakness in the North East of England, was a good day to see the Defiant Requiem. Defiance was in the air. A little earlier that day, Donald Trump, newly sworn-in President of the United States, had signed a decree banning citizens of certain Middle Eastern countries, and refugees, from entering his country. Earlier, with unseemly haste, our Prime Minister Theresa May had become the first head of government to visit him after his inauguration, and had joined him at an amicable press conference at the White House where she stressed their shared highly principled backgrounds, and invited him on a State Visit to the UK. Later she was to refuse to condemn his action, citing the ‘None of Our Business’ plea. But the audience at the Requiem were having none of it, and a reference to Trump’s action by the Dean introducing the work was met with a long outburst of spontaneous applause.   Minds can rarely have been more concentrated than ours that night on the UK premiere of this work of art.

The Defiant Requiem, Verdi at Terezin, is a concert drama created by conductor Murry Sidlin, to honour of the occupants of Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp just north of Prague, who under the leadership of one of their number, the charismatic young musician Rafael Schächter, formed a choir which performed the Requiem 16 times between 1943 and 1944, with the accompaniment of a single piano and using only one, smuggled, score. Singers all had to be taught the music and commit it to memory. The drama presents the entire Requiem, punctuated by film of survivors of the choir, testimonies read out by actors, and excerpts from a Nazi propaganda film made in the camp showing it as a benign sanctuary for children, the old, and the ill. It fooled the Red Cross, invited into the Camp to see its conditions for themselves, and also to hear the Requiem. Tragically the message in every note failed to be picked up by the visitors. That proved to be its final performance. Four months afterwards Schächter , and most of the choir, were deported to Auschwitz, hardly any surviving to see the liberation of Czechoslovakia where they had dreamed of performing the work in freedom in Prague. Schächter survived Auschwitz but died on a ‘death march’ in 1945, aged 39.

The Verdi Requiem, while based on Christian liturgy, proved to be a perfect universal work for the occasion. His muscular music conveys all the facets of being human, love, anger, sorrow, terror, solace, and the sheer thrilling voluptuousness of living. Echoes of all the passions of his operas are there. In the Dies Irae we feel the anger of the prisoners against their oppressors ‘Nothing shall remain unavenged’, which gave them the courage to hold on. The Lacrimosa has never sounded so poignant. And the Libera Me, shown accompanying the Nazi propaganda film, is an almost unbearable experience, remembering that it was sung as an unrecognised plea to the well-meaning visitors, the tragedy, I suppose, being that it must have been impossible to believe that so much beauty could be created by people living unimaginably terrible lives.

The performance was immaculate, by Durham Choral Society and their Orchestra, Durham University Chamber Choir and Durham University Orchestral Society, with soloists Gweneth-Ann Rand, Alison Kettlewell, Philip Sheffield and Keel Watson, the latter a particularly mellifluous voice, all doing great justice both to the occasion and to Verdi’s soaring music. At the end we were requested not to applaud but to observe a minute’s silence before leaving. As we left into the cold night outside, the lights illuminating the cathedral momentarily cast a great black shadow of each passing figure against the ancient walls. A reminder of the darkness that can so quickly flare up.

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