“Berlin 1938”
Horst Maria Merz and Daniel Hope in “Berlin 1938” at the 2019 Verbier Festival | Credit: Lucien Grandjean

At age 1, the fateful events of 1938 determined my future and the lives — and deaths — of millions. For violinist Daniel Hope, even from the distance of his birth in 1973, the consequences of the year that led to World War II also shaped his life and that of his family.

Hope, music director of New Century Chamber Orchestra, now addresses the last century in a fascinating blend of history, radio, classical and popular music. He and NCCO will perform “Berlin 1938: Broadcasts From a Vanishing Society” Sept. 16–18 in the Presidio Theatre, with vocalists Thomas Hampson and Horst Maria Merz — both men famous as singers and actors, both fluent in English and German, and both performing in this bilingual show (with supertitles in English when necessary).

Thomas Hampson
Thomas Hampson | Credit: Jiyang Chen

Originally created for the Verbier Festival in 2019, where it was acclaimed, the show is extended into its current theatrical production, described as “a gripping musical radio drama that will transport you back to a pre-war era of disappearing freedoms and tell the story of the artists who pushed back.”

Gathering clouds of war in Europe loomed large over the events of 1938, fueling the songwriters of the era — including Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Hanns Eisler, and others — to create works of candor, humor, and commentary about the rapid changes in society and growing threats to Jewish life.

What makes 1938 significant? Just a few of the events of the year leading up to the official start of World War II on Sept. 1, 1939: Hitler marches into Austria; in the Munich Pact, Britain, France, and Italy agree to let Germany partition Czechoslovakia; Nazis destroy Jewish shops, homes, and synagogues in the Kristallnacht riots; and the initial 30,000 victims of the Holocaust are sent to concentration camps.

As Hope noted, “It was a crucial year in the history of Germany and Europe. Things were still somewhat OK at the beginning of the year, and they went rapidly downhill from that moment, especially in Germany.

“From the moment of Kristallnacht, the horrendous day in November [Nov. 9, 1938], the terror was no longer behind closed doors. It was totally out in the open.”

As those who lived through those days — years, rather — know, ordinary life still continues along with destruction all around: think of Anne Frank’s diary. It is that mix that the New Century show builds on. “The way in which the world [was] listening to music, hearing music,” Hope said. Hence the show with two radio announcers, a German and an American, reciting the news headlines and bringing together the music with a band.

“Berlin 1938”
“Berlin 1938” at the 2019 Verbier Festival | Credit: Lucien Grandjean

What at Verbier was a small-scale chamber music event is now an evening of theater, with the orchestra a central figure. Hope mentions Weill’s “How Can You Tell an American,” a parody “about identity. And in a sense this evening is also about identity and my family’s identity, my family history on my mother’s side.”

Hope told SFCV: “My mother’s family were all forced to leave Berlin successively between 1933 and 1939. Perhaps most tragic was the case of my great-grandfather, a journalist. He was staunchly patriotic and even decorated for his service in World War I.

“He initially believed that the regime was good for Germany, but after Kristallnacht, he realized not only how wrong he had been but that he was next on their hit list. A few months later he took his life in Berlin, rather than leaving his beloved country.”

Daniel Hope
Daniel Hope | Credit: Daniel Waldhecker

The “element of madness” in the show, Hope says, stems from the sense that “there is writing on the wall, what they called in Berlin in 1938–1939 ‘dancing on the volcano,’ this feeling that something was to come, something bad, so let’s party, let’s enjoy the cabaret. So there is an element of madness in the show, a striking contrast to the darkness.”

The subject’s relevance has continued to impact Hope and the participating artists in the present, first with the pandemic crisis which turned lives upside down and now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I live in Berlin,” Hope said. “Being so close and seeing the kind of headlines we never thought we’d see again — it placed music yet again in a different context. The world is being shaken up, we don’t know where we are going, and this kind of project gives me both comfort and discomfort — using music to help, to console, to inspire, while also taking the mind off things.”

NCCO is offering free admission to an open rehearsal on Sept. 15, 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Presidio Theatre. To reserve tickets, email [email protected] or call (415) 357-1111.