Berkshire Choral Festival, Berkshire School, Sheffield, MA
by Michael J. Moran
Subtitled “A Concert Drama,” the second program of BCF’s 2012 season was a moving tribute created by guest conductor Murray Sidlin to Czech musician Rafael Schaechter (1905-1944), who trained 150 of his fellow prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp to sing Verdi’s “Requiem,” of which he led 16 performances there from a legless piano between 1943 and 1944 before he and most of his singers perished at Auschwitz and other death camps.
A complete account of the Verdi “Requiem” by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, the 180-member BCF Chorus, and four soloists was supplemented between movements with video testimony about these Terezin performances by surviving singers, excerpts from a Nazi propaganda film about Terezin, and a narration about the historical background. To suggest how the Terezin performances may have sounded, the orchestra was replaced in a few passages by solo piano.
The BCF performance was impassioned and intense. Soprano Rochelle Ellis, mezzo-soprano Janet Hopkins, tenor Scott Ramsay, and bass Stephen Bryant sang well individually and in various combinations. The large chorus sang with consistent clarity and unanimity. The orchestra played with distinction throughout, from the thundering brasses and percussion of the “Dies Irae” to the hushed strings of the “Offertorium.”
Three narrators, including Sidlin, also made strong contributions. Actor and bass-baritone John Arthur Miller read the words of Schaecter; and acclaimed British baritone Benjamin Luxon, sounding as mellifluous as on his many recordings, read testimony of various Terezin survivors.
Perhaps the most touching part of the performance was the end, when the chorus exited through the audience singing a Jewish lullaby, accompanied only by clarinetist Michael Sussman and concertmaster Robert Lawrence, the rest of the orchestra having exited backstage. A video projection requested a moment of silence for Schaecter in lieu of applause.
In a program note, Sidlin quotes Schaecter as telling his Terezin Choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.” This “concert drama” poignantly reaffirmed the power of music to bring “absolute joy” (which one survivor remembered feeling when she sang Verdi’s “Sanctus” at Terezin) even in the face of death.