Violins of Hope Are “Ultimate Survivors”

Janos Gereben on November 25, 2019
Israeli violinmakers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein initiated the project and restored the instruments; James A. Grymes is author of Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust

As details of the Violins of Hope Project are now being released, composer Jake Heggie talks about the reasons for his participation in this grand project:

I was drawn to it immediately because these instruments are the ultimate survivors — cared for, preserved, restored, and still able to give voice to the women and men who played them. Cultural memory is short in our world; one of the only ways we can tell people about what happened is to share stories again and again. And in music, we share the story anew each time, with a different nuance, vibration, and color — so it lives and vibrates in the moment.

Those who perished suddenly have a voice again. These instruments sing and share an unimaginable journey, they have stories to tell us. One of the primary goals of the Nazis was to eliminate the current and future generations of Jews and any sense of legacy. So every time these instruments are played it is an act of defiance, resistance, survival, and hope. When they are passed along to a new generation, it continues.

The ripple effect of that is unknowable and immensely inspiring. It also feels very contemporary.”

Songs From the Violins of Hope: Jake Heggie, violinist Hannah Tarley, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, librettist Gene Scheer | Credit: Rick Gydesen

Heggie — with a large body of socially aware works, including the opera Dead Man Walking — and librettist Gene Scheer are creating a chamber work for singer, violin soloist, and string quartet for the occasion, called Intonations: Songs From the Violins of Hope. It will be previewed on Jan. 18, 2020, at a concert featuring mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and violinist Daniel Hope, and have its world premiere the next day.

Encore presentations of the work will be presented in its San Francisco premiere at Grace Cathedral and in Silicon Valley at Congregation Sinai. Replacing Cooke and Hope for these concerts will be mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz and violinists Hannah Tarley and Rebecca Jackson.

Music at Kohl Mansion heads an impromptu alliance of 42 Bay Area organizations in presenting an eight-week residency, Jan. 16 – March 15, centered on the collection of 50 restored Holocaust-era violins.

Music at Kohl Mansion Executive Director Patricia Kristof Moy says her hope for the project is that “the violins will not only remind us of the shameful way they were used in the past, but will also speak anew, serving as life-affirming symbols, fostering important discussions on peace and human dignity, and ultimately creating a musical bridge of grace and compassion throughout our diverse Bay Area.”

Mauthausen concentration camp orchestra, photographed by an SS officer | Credit: Digital Archive Yad Vashem

The project unites S.F. Bay Area organizations in presenting concerts, exhibitions, lectures, films, interfaith services, and community forums commemorating the Holocaust. There will be a special event on Jan. 27 in Congregation Emanu-El, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Performances with the violins include concerts with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Oakland Symphony, Peninsula Symphony, and Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, among others.

Special to the San Francisco Bay Area presentation will be the appearance of Israeli father-and-son luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, second- and third-generation violin makers and the cofounders of the Violins of Hope initiative. What began as a modest effort with one or two violins in their Tel Aviv atelier in 1996 has grown to a collection of 86 instruments that have toured concert halls, congregations, and exhibition centers in Europe and the United States.

Luthier Amnon Weinstein, 80, in the atelier where the violins were restored

Both father and son will be presented in public forums speaking about their expert work at restoring each violin while reflecting on the provenance of these instruments and the impact these strings as symbols of hope have had on communities worldwide.

Avshalom Weinstein says, “It will be the first time the Violins of Hope collection will be on the West Coast of America, and we very much look forward to this important occasion. Each city we have visited has found new aspects and new ways to showcase these instruments.

“In Europe, the memory is a bit stronger, as they lived it. Almost every family there was involved in the war in some way, but the generations are changing. The most important aspect is to make sure we don’t forget, so that hopefully, we won’t make the same mistakes again.”

James A. Grymes, University of North Carolina Charlotte musicologist and author of the award-winning book Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust, will join the Weinsteins for public speaking engagements at the San Mateo Public Library, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and various private and public Bay Area schools. Joining them, violinists Hannah Tarley and Rebecca Jackson will offer a performance on select instruments from the Violins of Hope collection.

Other concerts will include “Along the Trade Route,” a musical exploration of shared melodies from over the centuries transcending political and national boundaries. Musical traditions to be explored include those of the Turks, Roma, Jews, Celts, South Asians, and North Americans.

Led by klezmer authority Cookie Segelstein of Veretski Pass, all performances will feature renowned musicians Emmanuel During, Hemmige V. Srivatsan, Darcy Noonan, and Suzy Thompson, performing on historic instruments from the Violins of Hope collection.