The VCU Commonwealth Singers standing on a platform singing
The VCU Commonwealth Singers is a select choir of mixed voices chosen from throughout the university. (Courtesy Erin Freeman)

VCU choir takes part in historic performance honoring concentration camp prisoners’ courage

Commonwealth Singers will participate in the 20th anniversary performance of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín.”

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Over the years, the Commonwealth Singers choir at Virginia Commonwealth University has been no stranger to social justice issues. In 2018, the group premiered a 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’s jail. During the pandemic, the choir released “Adaptation,” a program focusing on how issues of social justice have appeared in music from Verdi to current day. The project included a piece called "THE TALK: Instructions for Black Children When They Interact with the Police" by Damien Geter.

Now, the choir is participating in the Defiant Requiem Foundation’s 20th anniversary performance of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín” on Wednesday, April 20, at The Music Center at Strathmore 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 concentration camp (Terezín), led by conductor Rafael Schächter. “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them,” Schächter had said.

Maestro Murry Sidlin, president of the Defiant Requiem Foundation, created “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín,” which combines a performance of the music of Verdi with historic film, testimony from survivors and narration telling the moving story of courageous performances by prisoners in a WWII concentration camp.

The performance is a unique opportunity for college students from across the state and 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 chorus in Asheville, North Carolina, to perform the “Defiant Requiem.” Sidlin and the foundation’s program director, Mark Rulison, reached out to her for ideas for the 20th anniversary.

“We thought it appropriate to involve students,” Freeman said. “To make sure the message and legacy would continue into the future. So, we devised a plan where multiple colleges would individually prepare and then come together at the last minute. Thank goodness we learned some things about remote chorus during the pandemic. We definitely incorporated some of the tools.”

After blind auditions, two VCU students received solos.

“They will sing in a pastiche of musical sounds representing some of the artistic output 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 kind of overlap, and then are layered with folk, Klezmer and jazz, before a train whistle representing the train to Auschwitz violently interrupts them.”  

Sidlin will conduct the performance, which — in addition to the VCU Commonwealth Singers — includes regional ensembles from the American University Chamber Singers, The Catholic University of America Verdi Choir, Longwood University Camerata and Chamber Singers, University of Virginia Chamber Singers and the Virginia State University Concert Choir.

While each group is responsible for their own choir, Freeman — with assistance from the VCU Department of Music’s Lisa Fusco and Linda Johnston — created learning tools on a shared website and led several “ZoomHearsals” that people could attend synchronously or asynchronously. The ensembles have rehearsed together only once.

The VCU Commonwealth Singers is a select choir of mixed voices chosen from throughout the university and is known for its sensitive and dynamic performances of masterworks and a diverse spectrum of standard and nontraditional choral repertoire.