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Gilbert: VSO

04/05/10 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) On May 1 the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will conclude its seventy-fifth season with a performance of Verdi's Requiem at the Flynn Center in Burlington. Here's commentator and executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council Peter Gilbert with the powerful back story.

(Gilbert) During World War II, Nazis gathered some of Europe's most distinguished Jewish musicians, writers, and visual artists in Terezin, a concentration camp outside of Prague. Terezin served two purposes: propaganda to deny the Final Solution and show how well they cared for prisoners; and it was a transit point to Nazi death camps, particularly Auschwitz. Of the 141,000 prisoners at Terezin, perhaps 17,000 survived. With numerous hugely talented musicians there, one Jewish prisoner, Rafael Schächter, organized an orchestra and chorus of 150, which, in 1943 and '44, performed Giuseppe Verdi's hugely difficult Requiem. They presented it sixteen times over ten months, with Schächter training new musicians as people died of starvation or illness or were sent to Auschwitz. Ten years of research by Murry Sidlin, the dean of the School of Music at Catholic University in Washington, confirmed that the artistic performances were also acts of passive defiance, a way of "...singing to the Nazis what they could not say to them," and escaping, even temporarily, the misery around them. Survivors have said that the music was as critical to their survival as bread and water and that those performers saved their souls.

The prisoners, Sidlin said, "...were confronted with the worst of mankind. To answer that, they chose the best of mankind. They chose one of the greatest compositions ever."

And now Robert DeCormier, who has twice conducted the masterpiece at Carnegie Hall, will do so in Burlington. A free pre-concert talk at the Flynn will feature two special guests: distinguished artist Fred Turna, who was held at Terezin and Dachau from 1941 through April 1945; he began drawing at Terezin at the age of 18; and Marianka Zadikow, who sang in all ten performances of the Requiem.

The concert will be the culmination of a week of programs to honor the artistic achievements of those imprisoned at Terezin. In the last week of April there'll be an art exhibi at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington.There'll also be a panel of experts speaking at UVM, and a concert of other music of Terezin at Saint Michael's College.

But the highlight of these related events may be Verdi's thrilling music at the Flynn Center, and the VSO Chorus singing in Latin what was for the prisoners of Terezin a hidden message of resistance. Translated, it reads in part, "Day of wrath, that day the world will dissolve in ashes, . . . What trembling there will be when the Judge shall come, who shall destroy everything! . . . When the Judge is seated, everything hidden will be exposed; nothing will remain unpunished. . . .Silencing the damned, consigning them to acrid flames, call me among the blessed. I pray, bowed and kneeling, my heart contrite as ashes; take care of me at the end."
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