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The Holocaust connection that makes the Florida Orchestra's Verdi 'Requiem' concert special

Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme and three other singers will solo with the Florida Orchestra and Master Chorale of Tampa Bay in Verdi's Requiem, April 20 to 22, 2018. Courtesy of the Florida Orchestra.
Published Apr. 20, 2018

The Florida Orchestra puts another exclamation point on its 50th season with Verdi's Requiem, this weekend's concert series, a major presentation of an iconic work.

Composed by Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem debuted in 1874 but took on a new layer of significance 70 years later at the Terezin concentration camp. That explains why the Florida Holocaust Museum is collaborating with the orchestra in presenting the concert, which could prove memorable. Here's a short list of reasons why.

THE AMBITION

Verdi composed the requiem to honor a friend, novelist Alessandro Manzoni, whose funeral he was too grief-stricken to attend. In doing so, the opera giant created a work that pushes the extremes of terror and joy before reconciling both.

"It's a pillar of the choral orchestral repertoire, one of the most famous masterworks," said Beth Gibbs, who is preparing 125 singers for the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.

Film scores from Mad Max: Fury Road to Django Unchained have adopted the explosive Dies Irae movement, which translates into, "The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes."

Musical notations range from ppppp (extremely soft) to ff (very loud).

"There are such dramatic dynamic contrasts," said Gibbs, who directs choral studies at Florida Southern College. "There's pleading and begging and screaming. It's very humbling to sing it because it's such a dramatic and massive work."

THE HOLOCAUST CONNECTION

The Terezin (or Theresienstadt) concentration camp was located 30 miles north of Prague in the Czech Republic. Scholars, scientists, artists and musicians numbered among its 150,000 prisoners. In late 1943, the king of Denmark demanded an inspection after hearing rumors Terezin was a concentration camp.

The Nazis, anticipating a delegation of the International Red Cross, cleaned up the camp's appearance, planting gardens and even opening imitation shops and cafes. They ordered Czech composer Rafael Schachter, an inmate, to prepare a choral number. The prisoners chose the Verdi Requiem.

The Red Cross arrived June 23, 1944. The prisoners hoped someone would interpret the requiem and its final Libera Me movement ("Deliver me from eternal death") as a coded plea for help. Instead, the visitors reported that the prisoners were being treated well. Schachter had to reorganize the choir three times during rehearsals as prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz and other death camps.

Those rehearsals and performances have immortalized the Requiem as an expression of resistance to the Nazis. Florida Holocaust Museum executive director Elizabeth Gelman and orchestra chief executive officer Michael Pastreich will tell the Terezin story at the concert (and in more detail at a pre-concert talk).

THE SPECTACLE

The Requiem challenges soloists to operatic dimensions. The hired guns for this concert include soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, tenor Derek Taylor and bass-baritone Tim Mix.

The orchestra will swell to 90 musicians, including four trumpets in the balconies and sound booth during the Dies Irae.

As music director Michael Francis recently told Jack Harris on WFLA-AM 970, "There's one moment when you have the trumpets behind your head playing. The trumpets sound and the dead all rise, and the trumpets on the stage are all answering them. Then the choir comes in. I mean, I can sometimes barely conduct it because I get so excited. It is beyond thrilling."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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