Friday, April 8, 2016

More than the sound of music

When I wrote yesterday about all that culture in New York City, you might have noticed a glaring absence: what, no music? Well, barely any: there were two Broadway musicals, but that was just incidental. I don’t seek out music. Mostly, I actively avoid it.

I don’t know if it’s being sort of tone deaf or the ulcer I got at age 12 from piano lessons. The day I quit piano lessons – and I was pretty far along – was the last time I touched a piano.

Oh, I love the Rolling Stones and a good dance beat. I like the early Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker and Laura Nyro; and lately, I’ve been experimenting with cello performances and I enjoy them. When Sophie played the bass, I loved the deep, enveloping sound. I’m thinking of taking bass lessons. So I’m not a music-hater, more like music-reluctant.

When Grant Cochran of the Anchorage Concert Chorus asked if I’d take the part of the narrator in this week’s (tomorrow and Sunday) performances of Verdi’s Defiant Requiem, so many alarm bells went off for me: music! Classical music! Religious classical music! Catholic religious classical music! And then, because these performances highlight the Requiem in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, more alarm bells: not another Holocaust-Jewish-victimhood story again! Jews having to perform for Nazis like little puppets.

Everything said No! … so I said yes. But I was worried that with two performances AND two rehearsals it would be a struggle not to fall asleep in front of an audience.

Then my world shifted.

Wednesday night was the first rehearsal, and I am STUNNED. No, let me put it more accurately: I have FELT music, and it is TREMENDOUS!

Even the first view of the stage can knock you off your feet: 200 singers and 80 musicians! It’s the Anchorage Concert Chorus and UAA Singers, 13 music professors, Anchorage Concert Chorus orchestra and UAA Sinfonia. They’re all there!

I sit with six basses, ten cellos. There are four bassoons. Way over the sea of violins are giant drums, more trumpets. And when the singers sing, it’s no anemic, barely-heard-above-the-music singing – it’s a thunder of singing.

Murry Sidlin, the conductor who brings the Defiant Requiem around the world, clarified things. The inmates of Terezín sang the Requiem – from one copy of the score, committing it to memory – for themselves, not for the Nazis. They were nobody’s puppets. Long after they’d labored all day, mostly starving, mostly sick, they sang. They sang for an audience of mostly starving, mostly sick, mostly beaten-up fellow inmates. When one survivor says this singing gave her “pure joy” – in a concentration camp – I started to understand. This music was their creativity, their affirmation, their expression of personhood in a place that sought to deny it. It kept them alive.
When they were forced to do it for the Nazis – just once – they sang it to their faces. They sang out their courage, their being human, their having dignity and character and music. The Defiant Requiem is a story of defiance, not victimhood. It’s a story of standing up in refusal to be beaten down.

Now I get it. Music-reluctant me gets it. When the trumpets do call-and-response, when sweet sounds come from some place I can’t locate, when the voices rise up with spirit and defiance; I FEEL it. When all those basses rumble, my insides rumble. When the whole chorus erupts in song together, something inside me boils over. My whole self gasps and stands up.

Is it the music or the history? I don’t know; I’m a music novice. But I suspect they can’t be separated. I don’t know the words; all I hear is boldness and will, just like the Terezín inmates heard. Do the musicians and singers inject the spirit? Did Verdi? Do we the listeners?

Or is it just the sound of the big life force of being human?


  1. Nice piece. If I were in town, I would be there for the performance.

  2. In gratitude for your blog, Barbara, I'm sending you a CD which I love and want to share with you. My older sister and I used to send each other music. She was a cellist who had once played with Yo Yo Ma. The CD is the last music she gave me before she died. I hope you love it too.

    1. Oh, Berta, this is beyond sweet. I await its arrival!

  3. Heidi Herbert-LovernApril 11, 2016 at 12:27 PM

    Barbara- I know this is about the most ridiculous way to contact you, but I've got that list of bass (and any other string instrument you might be interested in!) private lesson teachers. Please shoot me an email at and I'll get that to you.

    Bravo to you, by the way, your narration was excellent both nights. We were lucky to have you with us.


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