in the garden

 

Nov 2012 Journal

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Letter from Israel

Any performance of Verdi’s Requiem anywhere in the world is a memorable event. I have heard it played several times and am invariably stirred, moved, uplifted and invigorated by the music, regardless of the standard of the performance. Hearing it played in Jerusalem under the title ‘Defiant Requiem’, commemorating the performance of the music in the Theresienstadt concentration camp under the baton of inmate Rafael Schächter, was something quite extraordinary for all those who heard it. But I felt that for me it had a special significance. The performance, which was given in the framework of the Israel Festival last summer, was the project of American conductor Murry Sidlin. In a bold move, the music was interspersed with readings describing the performance of the work in Theresienstadt and filmed accounts by camp survivors who had participated in the performance or attended it.

During my teenage years in London I heard the Requiem played on LP records almost every Sunday. That was the day on which my late father would sit at his desk in our back room, his head wreathed in cigarette smoke, as he attended to his accounts or typed letters on behalf of the various organisations for which he worked in his spare time to earn a few extra pennies. He had arranged for a loudspeaker system to be built from our front room so that records played on our radiogram, which was his pride and joy, could be heard in both rooms simultaneously. It was my task to attend to the four 33 rpm records which formed the boxed set of the Requiem and had to be turned over or changed every 20 minutes. Each time I hear the Requiem now I recollect exactly at which point each record ended, requiring my intercession so that the music could continue. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who the artists were, and those records have since gone the way of all flesh.

The book by Josef Bor describing the agonising events surrounding the performance of the Requiem in Theresienstadt, The Terezin Requiem, translated by Edith Pargeter and published in 1963, was on my parents’ bookshelf when I was still living at home, and I must have read it almost as soon as they bought it. The moving account of all the obstacles that had to be overcome in order to perform the music in the concentration camp made a deep impression on me. It never occurred to me that it could be dramatised. My own grandmother was deported to Theresienstadt from Hamburg, and perished there in early 1943 (before the performance of the Requiem). I have translated the letters she sent from there, as well as the diary kept by Martha Glass, who was also from Hamburg.

In the performance devised by Murry Sidlin Israeli actors gave some readings in Hebrew, Sidlin himself gave others in English, and an upright piano was used to accompany some of the music instead of the full orchestra, reminding the audience of the conditions under which the music was performed at Theresienstadt. At those moments the stage was darkened and, when the full orchestra resumed, the stage was lit, serving to underline the contrast between then and now. At the end of the performance the audience was requested not to applaud but to stand for a minute of silent contemplation. While we were standing, the soloists, the members of the orchestra and the choir quietly walked off the semi-darkened stage.

It was a truly moving performance of a remarkable piece of music, an event which few of those present will forget - least of all me, who felt that by some remarkable coincidence several strands of my life had been brought together. But I couldn’t help wondering what my father would have made of it.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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