Before Jahja Ling became Music Director of the San Diego Symphony, a time when the organization was putting its post-bankruptcy house in order, American maestro Murry Sidlin frequently conducted the orchestra. If my memory is correct, at that time he was Music Director of both the Long Beach and New Haven Symphony orchestras, posts that allowed him to fit San Diego into his schedule with ease.
Although versatility was his calling card—Sidlin could lead a pops concert as confidently as a Mahler symphony—he stood out for an inventive bit of programming he called his “Lightbulb Series,” concerts in which he freely dispensed his insights into what makes music tick.
Some—perhaps most—conductors should never attempt to speak from the podium, but, like the late Leonard Bernstein, Sidlin possesses both a silver tongue and a zeal for communication. At the Jacobs Music Center on Thursday (May 7), Sidlin presented his latest project, a traveling program titled Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, a concert of Guiseppe Verdi’s great Requiem surrounded by commentary about performances of this work given by Jews imprisoned by the Nazis in the notorious Theresienstadt Concentration Camp during World War II.
Defiant Requiem includes projections of testimonies from Terezín survivors as well as historical film clips of the actual camp. Narration by Sidlin and two onstage readers alternates with movements of the Requiem, elucidating the strange context of Jews performing a Roman Catholic Requiem for their Nazi overlords.
The musical genius who was able to give 16 complete Requiem performances in Terezín was Rafael Schächter, a Czech conductor who had managed to sneak a piano-vocal score of the Requiem into the camp. He assembled and taught a large chorus their parts by rote, and in performance he accompanied his singers on the piano.
Who could leave the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall after the Defiant Requiem performance without being profoundly moved by the depth and power of its testimony to spiritual witness fused with gritty defiance? It is a tribute to Sidlin’s skill as an insightful interpreter of history and music performance that he was able to balance the intertwined themes of the camp prisoners’ fortitude, Verdi’s inspired music, and Schächter’s devoted leadership with the cruelty and inhumanity of concentration camp existence. A repeated phrase during the evening’s narration captured the prisoners’ motivation to sing Verdi: “We sang to them what we could not say to them,” a pointed reference to the lines of the Requiem‘s “Dies Irae” that promise Divine judgement on those who perpetrate evil.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of this Requiem performance was the way a movement would start in the darkened hall with just the onstage piano accompanying the singers—as they were accompanied in Terezín. Then, after a short time the orchestra would quietly begin to play and take over the accompaniment as the house lights came up to their usual performance level. Moving the audience from the starkness of the concentration camp mode—I have never heard a solo piano sound so eerie and menacing—to the luxury and comfort of a 21st-century concert hall with full orchestra engaged the audience in a way that a straightforward memorial concert could never have accomplished.
Stepping back to comment on the Verdi Requiem performance, I felt the San Diego Symphony made the strongest impression overall, ever responsive to Sidlin’s passionate direction and producing a rich, integrated sonority that rose to all of the work’s dynamic challenges, aided by notable recent improvements in the orchestra’s brass choirs. A number of additional guest trumpeters (required by Verdi’s score) made the sumptuous fanfares that opened the “Tuba mirum” movement, for example, thrilling. No, more than that: astonishing!
Sidlin’s conducting pushed to the dramatic end of the spectrum, although he allowed the Master Chorale the indulgence of their fervent, just-above-a-whisper pleas for “Requiem aeternam” (“eternal rest”). The Master Chorale gave a persuasive account of the Requiem, especially the jubilant, supple women’s voices in the “Sanctus,” the whole choir’s compelling dramatic sweep in the “Lacrymosa,” and the graceful counterpoint of the “Libera me.”
As the Chorale’s new Music Director John Russell rebuilds this musical organization, I hope he will be able to integrate stronger, more operatically trained voices in every section to give the Chorale the strength and sonic brilliance to hold its own when working with full orchestra. In the opening of Verdi’s cataclysmic “Dies Irae,” as was the case last week in Orff’s opening chorus of Carmina burana, the Chorale was overpowered.
Since the four vocal soloists have a crucial role in this most operatic of requiems, this quartet proved disappointing. Only the bass soloist Nathan Stark and mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero sounded up to the requirements of their roles. Quintero offered ingratiating vocal color, supple phrasing and conveyed the dramatic urgency of her solos.
After the tenor Philip Webb struggled to coax even a modicum of beauty from Verdi’s gracioius supplications in the “Hostias,” Stark entered with his richly hued, unforced production of the same theme as if to say, “this is how it should sound.” Amanda Hall’s clear, lithe soprano would have made an excellent choice for the Mozart Requiem, but she lacked the strength to hold her own in ensembles against Verdi’s bold orchestral writing.
This Defiant Requiem performance was presented by the Anti-Defamation League of San Diego, whose work to support human rights and fight against anti-Semitism is nonpareil. Inasmuch as this week nations around the world pause to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the Second World War, Defiant Requiem gave San Diegans the opportunity to honor this anniversary in a remarkably profound manner.