Over the years, the Commonwealth singers Virginia Commonwealth University Choir is no stranger to social justice issues. In 2018, the group created work by Professor Antonio Garcia with text from “Writing Their Way Out: Memoirs from Jail” by Professor David Coogan, Ph.D., and former inmates of Richmond Jail. During the pandemic, the choir launched “Adaptation,” a show focused on how social justice issues have appeared in music from Verdi to the present day. The project included a piece titled “THE TALK: Instructions for black children when interacting with the policeby Damien Geter.
Now the choir takes part in the Defiant Requiem Foundation’s 20th anniversary performance of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi in Terezinon Wednesday, April 20 at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland.
Giuseppe Verdi wrote “Requiem” in the 1870s as part of the Catholic funeral mass. During World War II, Jewish prisoners performed the oratorio in the Theresienstadt (Terezín) concentration camp, conducted by conductor Rafael Schächter. “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot tell them,” Schächter had said.
Maestro Murry Sidlin, President of the Defiant Requiem Foundation, has created ‘Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín’, which combines a performance of Verdi’s music with historical film, survivor testimonies and narration telling the moving story of brave performances of prisoners in a WWII Concentration Camp.
The show is a unique opportunity for students across the state and across Washington to sing together, said Erin R. Freeman, director of choral activities at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The production has been in the works since 2019, when Freeman prepared a large choir in Asheville, North Carolina to perform the “Defiant Requiem.” Sidlin and the foundation’s program director, Mark Rulison, asked him for ideas for the 20th anniversary.
“We thought it was appropriate to involve the students,” Freeman said. “To ensure that the message and the legacy would continue into the future. So we devised a plan where several quorums would prepare individually and then come together at the last minute. Thank goodness we learned about the choir at distance during the pandemic. We’ve definitely integrated some of the tools.
After blind auditions, two VCU students were given solos.
“They will sing in a pastiche of musical sounds representing part of the artistic production created by the prisoners of Terezín,” Freeman said. “Baritone Jesse Roberts will sing Schubert’s ‘An die Musick’. Bella Cox will sing Mozart’s “Ach Ich fühls from Die Zauberflöte”. Their solos overlap, then overlap with folk, klezmer and jazz, before a train whistle representing the train to Auschwitz violently interrupts them.
Sidlin will lead the performance, which – in addition to the VCU Commonwealth Singers – includes regional ensembles from the American University Chamber Singers, Catholic University of America Verdi Choir, Longwood University Camerata and Chamber Singers, University of Virginia Chamber Singers and the State of Virginia. University concert choir.
While each group is responsible for its own choir, Freeman – with help from Lisa Fusco and Linda Johnston of VCU’s music department – has created learning tools on a shared website and led several “ZoomHearsals” to which people could attend synchronously or asynchronously. The sets only rehearsed together once.
The VCU Commonwealth Singers is a select choir of mixed voices chosen from across the university and is known for its sensitive and dynamic performances of masterpieces and a wide range of standard and non-traditional choral repertoire.
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