When I heard we would be performing the Verdi Requiem, I focused mainly on the fact that I would finally be singing one of the great choral works that I had never sung before. I had often heard about the Verdi, always mentioned in the same breath with the Mozart Requiem, the Bach B Minor Mass, and the Brahms Requiem. And now, as a member of the New York Choral Society, I would be singing it in Carnegie Hall.
But then our conductor, Robert DeCormier, explained that there was more to this Verdi Requiem than the nature of the piece itself - that, in fact, a performance of it during World War II made it even more special. He said that a young Czech conductor, Raphael Schacter, had the goal of having Jewish musicians perform the Verdi at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. I was startled when he mentioned Theresienstadt, because I had been there as a college student 10 years before. But at that time the communist guide never mentioned anything about music....
DeCormier went on to say that the musicians were continually being transported to the death camps. Located just northwest of Prague, Theresienstadt was primarily a way station, and was used as a showcase to the rest of the world to prove that the inmates of the camp were well treated. It was in this context that Schacter was allowed to conduct rehearsals. But the transports thwarted him; so he pleaded with the Theresienstadt officials, and they finally agreed to keep the musicians off the transport lists.
Instruments and music were smuggled in, soloists were found, and then word came that there was to be a command performance for the top SS officials, including Adolf Eichmann. Schacter made one stipulation when told who would be in the audience. His musicians would not bow to them.
It must have been a stunning performance, DeCormier continued, because the musicians must have known - each one of them - that they were singing their own requiems. And, indeed, true to his word, the company commandant never separated the Theresienstadt musicians - the day after the performance they were all shipped together to the death camps.
DeCormier also mentioned that the Choral Society had sung the Verdi Requiem five years before in a special memorial concert for the Theresienstadt musicians. The daughters of a Theresienstadt survivor heard about the concert and brought their mother to that performance. The chorus didn't find out about her until she went backstage afterward to thank DeCormier for his tribute to her fellow performers, most of whom had been killed.
It was hard to comprehend the experience of the Theresienstadt musicians. How could they have sung their own requiems? I tried to put myself in their place, remembering the little I did of Theresienstadt. How barren it had seemed - so whitewashed and sterilized by the Russians who had overtaken Czechoslovakia. Of the 139,654 Jews that were deported to the camp, only 16,832 remained when it was liberated in 1945. And yet, nearly 40 years ago, some woman just like me had held her copy of the Requiem, singing her part - only she was debilitated from starvation, exhaustion, and fear for her family and herself. How could she sing? But perhaps, how could she not sing.
The night of our concert arrived. The performance was sold out; people were standing at the back of Carnegie Hall. The Verdi is always a big draw.
We had decided to perform without intermission, so the concert proceeded from the subdued opening bars of the ''Requiem and Kyrie'' through to the dramatic, relentless ''Dies Irae,'' whose foreboding rhythms repeat throughout the piece, warning about the Day of Judgment; on to the various soloists' passages that cry out for mercy - with supplication, with desperation, with great passion; on to the insistent opening choral passages of the ''Sanctus'' and its triumphant fugue; then to the purity of the ''Agnus Dei'' (almost entirely in unison, the mezzo and soprano singing an octave apart until the end, when they sing as one) asking for peace and eternal rest; from the pleading ''Lux Aeterna'' to the final ''Libera Me'' section.
Throughout the performance, there seemed to be a special sense of being attuned - chorus with soloists and orchestra, conductor with all three elements, and all of us with the audience. Given the limitations of rehearsals, it was remarkable to have such a rare sense of ensemble. The conductor led his musicians like the true artist he is - painting a picture of supplication, of terror, of awe in the face of the hereafter, of the Almighty. Here we were at one moment invoking an image of fiery, merciless Hell, and at the next portraying a peaceful calm, full of light and mercy. We responded to each subtlety of direction, all of us engrossed in the music.
Now the conclusion was at hand - ''Deliver me, oh Lord, from eternal death on that dreadful day ... deliver me, deliver me.'' Free us, I thought, thinking of those concentration camp victims in their pitiful uniforms, defiant in the very fact of their existence. The soprano sang her final invocation, and the chorus finished the requiem singing quietly, ''Libera Me,'' ending on a mournful, subdued tone.
I was staring at the conductor, who, in the brilliant light from the stage seemed to have a halo of light around him, while the audience was bathed in blackness. He conducted the last beat of music. Silence. He held his hands aloft , not breaking the mood, not ending the moment. Normally, he would pause a beat or two and then lower his hands, signaling that the piece had indeed ended. But not then. That night was different. His hands remained frozen. No one moved - not the soloists, not the orchestra, not the chorus, not one of the 2,300 people in Carnegie Hall.
And suddenly the silence was filled with an awesome presence. No, the Theresienstadt musicians have not been forgotten, I thought, my eyes full. And then a feeling of peace, a sense of comfort, washed through me.
Finally, the conductor lowered his hands. The hall rang with thunderous applause. There was a standing ovation.