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Two hundred thousand people have been killed and 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes during the four years of murder, rape and devastation in Sudan's Darfur region. The killings there have brought out calls to conscience but so far very little action from the United Nations and individual countries. It was against this backdrop that musicians and soloists from some of the world's great orchestras, ensembles, and choral groups gathered on the stage of Carnegie Hall in New York City Monday night for a performance of the Verdi "Requiem."

(Soundbite of "Requiem")

SIMON: The concert was to benefit relief efforts for the millions of people affected by the conflict in Darfur. George Matthew is the artistic director and the creative force behind the "Requiem" for Darfur. He joins us from our studios in New York. Mr. Matthew, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. GEORGE MATTHEW (Artistic director, "Requiem" for Darfur): You're very welcome.

SIMON: And why did you want to make this musical response and what do you hope to accomplish?

Mr. MATTHEW: Well, this conflict has taken an extraordinary toll on so many, many innocent people in Darfur. And as an artist one is always dealing with the deepest kind of human expression. And in the works of the great composers, we find a message in the music that has to do with the universality of human experience. And in that context it became imperative that we, as a classical music community, had to say something with our craft.

(Soundbite of "Requiem")

SIMON: Why did you choose Verdi's "Requiem?"

Mr. MATTHEW: Well, Verdi's "Requiem" is at once music of mourning. It is at once extremely stern. It is also the music of fear, of abject terror in the face of death, and really, what happens to the human spirit when it's confronted with the prospect of becoming nothing - or being rescued. And there is, in this music, a call for salvation that transcends its liturgical surface, that transcends its Christian surface, and the music explodes frequently.

(Soundbite of "Requiem")

Mr. MATTHEW: All hell is breaking loose. The bass drum and the timpani and all the brass are cutting loose. And in the aftermath of those explosions, there is that silent space, which is the fertile ground for action. That also is relevant to us. There have been these explosions of atrocity. There have been these explosions of attention in the world media. And then there have been the silences. And in those silences we must act. And that is so central to where we are and what we must do.

SIMON: I wonder if I could get you to talk musically, as to how Verdi's "Requiem" accomplishes this. For example, if you could talk about how the piece opens.

Mr. MATTHEW: The opening of the piece, the first five bars is the barest murmur in the cellos and it's only a single voice outlining an A minor triad. And it becomes a metaphor, almost, for the death of an individual, alone.

(Soundbite of "Requiem")

Mr. MATTHEW: And the moment that it's finished, the community is activated. It is a community of strings and it's a community of voices. And what it seems to suggest is that in our human environment, the prospect of an individual dying, unnoticed, is not acceptable. It is not natural. And it is certainly not conscionable. It's almost as if by virtue of the fact that someone is dying, a community must gather. And Verdi is speaking to our deepest and best instincts.

(Soundbite of "Requiem")

SIMON: Are there some hazards in putting together a group of musicians that does not ordinarily play together, and entrusting them with such a well known piece in such a conspicuous setting?

Mr. MATTHEW: Under normal circumstances, if there wasn't a cause to bring them together, there might have been hazards. But here the spirit that they're coming together with is one of an air of protectiveness to each other, to the music, to the cause, to me and so the paradigm of the orchestra is actually transformed quite dramatically. And as a younger conductor, myself, I found it very easy to actually transfer the impetus to them. And really, was informed by their perspectives on the piece, because each one of them has played this work. Most of them have played the work with some of the great conductors of our time, whereas I am conducting it for the first time.

SIMON: Can I get you, sir, to talk about that section of that piece, "Lacrimosa?"

Mr. MATTHEW: It's a portrait of a community in tears, weeping.

(Soundbite of "Requiem" "Lacrimosa")

Mr. MATTHEW: And what is so extraordinary is it's all in Italian and this music was written when, 1873, in honor of a great Italian poet, Alessandro Manzoni. And here we are, we're finding that it has direct relevance to the context here, for Darfur.

SIMON: Mr. Matthew, thank you very much.

Mr. MATTHEW: You're very welcome.

SIMON: George Matthew, artistic director for "Requiem" for Darfur. Last Monday's performance of Verdi's "Requiem" by an assembled orchestra and chorus from around the world to benefit the victims of four years of war in Darfur. And for more about "Requiem" for Darfur, you can go to our Web site, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of "Requiem")

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