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Verdi, the Holocaust, and the Indians of Minnesota

What happens when the Bemidji Symphony—a small community orchestra in northern Minnesota—performs Defiant Requiem, a multimedia adaptation of Verdi’s Requiem that incorporates the Holocaust? The chance for a broader dialogue with the local Native American community, for one thing.

Defiant Requiem is a music drama written and conducted by Murry Sidlin that tells the story of prisoners in the Terezín concentration camp during World War II, who performed Verdi’s Requiem sixteen times from 1943 to 1944. In addition to orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists, it incorporates projected images of the concentration camp itself. For the Bemidji Symphony’s Defiant Requiem concert on May 1, Music Director Beverly Everett felt it was critical to include the Native American community, given Minnesota’s long and complicated history with the Plains Indians, so a few months before the performance, the Bemidji Symphony hosted an hourlong pre-concert lecture by humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson that attracted more than 200 people and generated some strong feelings and vigorous discussion on the meaning of the word Holocaust.

Everett recently spoke about why she wanted the Bemidji Symphony to perform Defiant Requiem, the importance of reaching out to the Native American community, and what the orchestra and the Native American community might gain from the experience. Some of her comments:

• “I studied with Murry Sidlin at Aspen during the summers of 1996 and 1997, when he was beginning to work on Defiant Requiem. I kept up with where he was in the process of creating it, and in 2004 I saw it performed at Catholic University in D.C. and attended a panel discussion with two Holocaust survivors. I was just so moved by the whole experience. I’ve talked about it for years, and it’s a dream come true to be able to actually present it in one of the communities where I work.

• “Defiant Requiem is the story of how Raphael Schächter had the vision of performing the Verdi Requiem at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. I can’t imagine the extraordinary nature of Schächter’s vision to do that there. He had a piano with no legs that had been smuggled in. He had one piano-vocal score and a choir of 150 people, and he taught them the Verdi Requiem—one of the greatest choral-orchestral pieces in the repertoire—by rote. And it gave them such a message of hope, because they were singing to their captors what they could not say to them. So they took this traditional Requiem Catholic Mass, and gave it new meaning. “The wrath of God” became “wrath beyond you.” This chorus of 150 people had to be replaced three different times during those two years, because people were sent off to Auschwitz. It’s truly the most profound story I’ve ever known, in all of my music studies, about the real power of music to change people.

• “In Bemidji, because of where we are, we felt it was important to let our community know that we as an organization made this connection, and weren’t just bringing in the story of what happened to the people in the concentration camp, but that we were aware of what had happened to people around us. [The response to Clay Jenkinson’s lecture in February] showed us how deep those hurts still run within the Native American community. We hope it was maybe a springboard to something in the future, to reach out to that community and incorporate some of their traditions, if we can, in a concert.

• “At the February lecture, there were a lot of people from the Indian community who came up afterwards and said, ‘We so appreciated this.’ We don’t typically have a large turnout from that community at our concerts. A number of them said, ‘Now we’ll come to this concert.’ I don’t think they would have been interested in coming otherwise.”

Listen/watch clips from Clay Jenkinson’s lecture on the meaning of the word “Holocaust”:

Listen/watch clips from Clay Jenkinson’s lecture on the execution of 38 Dakota Native Americans in Minnesota in 1862:

Shown in top photo: Theresienstadt musicians from the 1944 Nazi propaganda film The Führer Gives the Jews a City
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