• The spiritual triumph of a requiem marks a personal triumph for its conductor
Onstage, the wild mane of white hair and grand physical gestures evoke the spirit of one of his musical heroes, Leonard Bernstein. Murry Sidlin, resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony, has spent his life preparing for an opportunity to introduce a work of grand scale to a national audience.
This, then, is his defining moment.
The work is 'Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,' which the Oregon Symphony will perform this weekend. Sidlin has spent five years writing and developing the concert-drama, and the Public Broadcasting Service will tape the performance for national broadcast later on.
Through 'Defiant Requiem,' audiences will become acquainted with a little-known chapter of the Holocaust.
With the help of actors, orchestra, soloists and the Portland Opera chorus as well as video clips of survivors, Sidlin will tell the story of Rafael SchŠchter, a choral conductor from Prague.
Teaching the singers by rote, SchŠchter led a 150-member choir of fellow Jewish prisoners in performances of Giuseppe Verdi's 'Requiem' in the Czechoslovakian concentration camp at Terezin, northwest of Prague.
Verdi's classic 1874 liturgical piece Ñ a plea for forgiveness and redemption Ñ was used as a statement of defiance against the prisoners' Nazi captors.
'Rafi (SchŠchter) used to tell the chorus, 'We can sing to them what we cannot say to them,' ' Sidlin says. 'That verifies that this is a statement of resistance, that these prisoners had not capitulated their minds and hearts, and that their emotional state was strong.'
Like the concerts in the innovative Nerve Endings series, for which Sidlin is the artistic director, the project reflects the conductor's passion for music, his gift as an educator and his knack for pushing the boundaries of how audiences experience music.
The Nerve Endings series presents classical music in 'unclassical' ways. The concerts might employ film or actors to dramatize a composer's life, and there is always plenty of expository comment from Sidlin himself.
But this weekend's concert, unlike those before, is a deeply personal and spiritual work for Sidlin, a first-generation American raised in a Jewish family.
A musical home
Sidlin was born in Baltimore in 1940 to parents who had emigrated from Eastern Europe.
His father, a professional photographer who came from Riga, the capital of Latvia, played the mandolin and often brought home classical music records. Sidlin's mother came from a ghetto outside Minsk, now in the Ukraine. She had a beautiful singing voice, Sidlin says.
'She gave three shows a day in the kitchen,' he says.
Though the family was far from wealthy, the Sidlin children all took piano lessons. There always seemed to be music in the house. An older cousin who played trumpet acted as a mentor to Sidlin, teaching him the nuances of the different Beethoven symphonies.
Sidlin knew he wanted to be a conductor at an early age.
'You can't go around admitting things like that when you're 12 years old,' he says. 'There is a lot of stigma attached with declaring openly you want to do something profound.'
A turning point in Sidlin's education came during his junior year at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University. A conducting mentor, Elliot Galkin, arranged for Sidlin to study in Italy with renowned Romanian conductor Sergiu Celebidache.
'Under his tutelage, one moved from fanatical ego to the cave of fear,' Sidlin says. 'Prior to that time I was in Stage One: 'Give me a stick, give me a score, I'll do anything.'
'He scared me to death and showed me how little I knew and what I was going to have to do to get serious about this in order not to be an insignificant blemish on the musical world.'
Though Sidlin spent two summers with Celebidache, one hour in particular changed his life. Seated side by side in the back of a concert hall after a rehearsal, the two stared straight at the stage. Celebidache proceeded to give a precise accounting of Sidlin's deficiencies Ñ what he didn't know, couldn't do.
'Then he turned to me and said: 'But you have the artistry and you have the intellect and you have the hands, and you must do this. Let nothing get in your way,' ' Sidlin remembers. ' 'You must do this. This is your course. Whether it comes out in the proper way is up to you, but I am convinced and persuaded that you should pursue it.' '
It's a rare experience for an artist to receive such validation from someone he so respects.
Not only was Sidlin fortunate to get this encouragement at an early age, but he has spent his career providing it to younger aspiring conductors.
'I've cleaned up his delivery a bit,' he jests.
In partnership with Pacific University in Forest Grove, Sidlin established an apprentice conductor position at the Oregon Symphony. And, in addition to his job as resident conductor of the symphony, he co-founded the American Academy of Conducting, a new school within Colorado's Aspen Music Festival, where he has worked every summer for nearly 25 years.
Classical but not cold
Sidlin's progression from student to teacher began during the Vietnam War. Receiving an occupational deferment, he taught music at a junior high school in Baltimore County.
He engaged the tough young audience by making the students laugh, and he learned how to take some of the starch out of classical music.
'I had to solve the problem of somehow getting these hundreds of churning pubescents Ñ for whom the sap is flowing and every 10 seconds there is a new pimple, for whom life was very difficult Ñ and teach them something about classical music,' he says.
He took what he'd learned from teaching saplings and in the next decade fine-tuned it as an assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony and as resident conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. To place important works in context, he grew more adept at using soloists, actors, video and other media as they became available in the concert hall.
Those experiences led to Nerve Endings, which Sidlin launched in 1996 with funding from the Knight Foundation.
Sidlin's series of concert-dramas, created to attract new audiences, is the most successful such audience development series in the nation. In the past three seasons, the subscriber base of presold tickets has more than tripled to 2,000 subscribers at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which seats 2,776 people.
There was resistance from members of the orchestra. Some told him he was going to ruin everything, Sidlin remembers, 'meaning that this was going to be cheap entertainment and people wouldn't go to the subscription concerts anymore.'
'Over the years, I found myself quite alone a number of times,' he says, 'with the exception of Jimmy, who never lost faith in this process.'
Jimmy is James DePreist, the Oregon Symphony's music director and conductor. He invited Sidlin to join the symphony in 1994 because he knew Sidlin had a great interest in educating audiences in nontraditional ways.
They have since formed a close friendship, fortified by humor and a shared world view that 'comes from our experiences in not dealing with the bias but acknowledging what exists,' DePreist says.
One year, while driving through a rural area, they passed a house with a large Confederate flag and a derelict car perched atop stacks of bricks. DePreist turned to Sidlin, and Sidlin said, 'One black, one Jew ÉÊfloor it!'
'Nothing shall go unavenged'
The genesis of 'Defiant Requiem' was a reference to SchŠchter in an out-of-print book Sidlin came across in a bargain sale rack at a Denver bookstore.
Sidlin was unnerved by the fact that Jews Ñ who were imprisoned at Terezin solely because of their ethnicity Ñ would spend their last days learning a musical work based on the Catholic liturgy.
But during his research, he came to realize that SchŠchter deliberately chose Verdi's 'Requiem' because of two powerful movements: 'Dies Irae,' the Day of Wrath, or Judgment Day, and 'Libera Me,' which SchŠchter translated as 'Liberate me, oh Lord' to mean liberation from the Nazis.
Typically, Judgment Day is seen from the perspective of the individual, when each person's life is judged by God. At Terezin, however, the meaning changed. Clearly, the choir was saying that everyone, including the Nazis, would be judged. At one point, the choir intones: 'Nothing shall go unavenged.'
The last movement, 'Deliver Me,' takes on the more literal translation of 'Liberate me,' and the choir appeals to God, saying, 'The heavens and earth shall be shaken.'
Sidlin thinks the chorus' prayers were answered.
The choir performed the requiem 16 times during 1943 and 1944, a period when British and American troops were devastating Germany with bombing attacks.
Jewish elders at Terezin objected to SchŠchter's interest in performing the requiem; they were concerned that arguments of faith might break out among the prisoners and feared the Nazis would resolve the disputes by deporting the performers to Auschwitz.
SchŠchter ignored them.
Singing those powerful words to the Nazis Ñ Adolf Eichmann and high-level SS officers attended the final performance Ñ gave prisoners hope at a time when many of them had given up on life.
'He was a hero of the arts and of humanity,' Sidlin says of SchŠchter.
'He was a hero of human dignity who would not succumb to Nazi humiliation and degradation, as his purpose was that everyone who came into contact with the requiem would feel similarly.'
SchŠchter died on a forced death march after the camp's evacuation.
Standing in his office, Sidlin cups a small black stone in his hand.
'You should know that 160,000 people probably stepped on these while boarding trains for Auschwitz,' he says of the stone in his hand and others lying on his desk. Sidlin dug them up at Terezin.
'I always ask people to touch something from there so they have a direct relationship to the people who were prisoners there.'