Requiem for Darfur

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As great as any of his 28 operas, Giuseppe Verdi’s one Requiem is beyond category among the masterpieces of human affirmation in the depths of suffering and horror. Verdi wrote it in his 60’s to mourn and remember his artistic heroes, the composer Rossini and the poet-novelist Manzoni. The Requiem lives in the choral and orchestral canon as a monument to Verdi himself: his belief, doubt, compositional craft and melodic genius. The work encompasses confessions of sin and guilt, a tour of hell, affirmations of faith and aspirations to heaven. Verdi’s “Dies Irae,” not normally part of the traditional Catholic requiem Mass, has become a Hollywood favorite soundtrack for unidentifiable terror. Prisoners at Terezin, the Nazi camp in Czecholovakia, learned and played the Requiem in defiance of their helplessness. Musicians play it still, not least to remember Terezin.

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George Mathew [William Lamson, Courtesy of New York Magazine]

Next Monday evening in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, the Singapore-born Indian conductor George Mathew will lead an all-star cast in making “a symphonic statement to the world” about the unabated malevolence and misery often labeled “genocide” in the region of Sudan known as Darfur.

The concert is a fundraiser, of course, for all the right relief teams. Jan Egland of the UN and Mia Farrow will take celebrity turns. The performers — the cream of New York, Berlin and the Metropolitan Opera — will be brilliant.

But George Mathew’s real hook into our hearts and consciences concerns the connection point among art, understanding and action. As in his Carnegie performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony last year for earthquake devastation in Kashmir, George Mathew is looking for an antidote to aestheticism, isolation and despair. And he believes that the answers are in the music — with a fervor that makes others drop what they are doing. The New York Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow was surprised to get the call, “but George is extremely compelling,” as he told New York Magazine. “Who else thinks of a musical event about helping people?” Bono and Bob Geldof, obviously, but not before this among classical players.

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Dies Irae in Sudan

[Ron Haviv/VII, Courtesy DarfurDarfur.org]

Verdi’s Requiem, Mathew says, “is simultaneously music of mourning, consolation and a stern, urgent reminder of accountability and responsibility that each of us bears for the well being of our fellow creature,” added Mathew. “There is no more fitting way for us in the musical community to give voice to the acute need, fear, suffering and hope, of the victims of this catastrophe.”

My question to George is how his grasp of Verdi, and Beethoven, can strengthen our limp notions of what is happening in Sudan; how even a rapt contemplation in listening to Verdi can relieve our very contemporary American distance and indifference to what has become the hellish wallpaper of our media and our minds.

George Mathew

Artistic Director and conductor of Verdi’s Requiem for Requiem for Darfur

Conducting Staff, Manhattan School of Music

Former General Manager, Boston Camerata

Stephanie Kleschnitzki

Coordinator and Sudan advisor for Requiem for Darfur

Extra Credit Reading

Cedric, Verdi’s Requiem, SFist: Philistine, June 21, 2006: “Visiting conductor James Conlon twice asked for a perfect silence from the SF Symphony audience in Davies Symphony Hall, during Saturday’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem. The first time was to shush the house before opening the concert with the softest pianissimo from the cellos, a whisper of a murmur leading to the hushed prayer from the Chorus…”

Jason, Friday 8 Track, OxyMoron: Hipster Dork, January 12, 2006: “Elements to note are the huge percussive hits that work in a call-and-response with the orchestral hits as well as the frantic high strings (similar to Wagner’s darkest and angriest moments) that sound like the heavens are being burned from the sky.”

Euterpe’s Daughter, Amused, Music’sDaughter, December 20, 2006: “My prof for my psych class…played music before every class this semester. When I recognized it, I noticed it was always topical (for example, OLP’s Spiritual Machines on the day we talked about consciousness). The day of the exam, he played Verdi’s Requiem….It sounds like the world is coming crashing down around your ears. Apocalypse! Destruction! Wailing and gnashing of teeth!”

C. Dale Young, Quantus tremor est futurus, Avoiding the Muse, June 25, 2006: “Verdi’s Requiem was amazing. I was riveted, and it seemed most of the audience was as well. Whatever people want to say, there is still a strange power hidden deep within the words of the Latin mass. It captivates. It mesmerizes. Despite having never heard Verdi’s Requiem, I knew the lyrics, so to speak.”

Chris Jarrett and Alexis Rosenzweig, Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin, Radio Praha, May 24, 2006: “One Rafael Schaechter, using just a legless piano and with one single copy of the score, gathered over 150 fellow prisoners in a basement beneath the camp to rehearse a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. On Sunday, 63 years on, the camp was once again the venue for Verdi’s masterpiece, performed by musicians from the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music in remembrance of those who lived their last days in the grounds of Terezin.”

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