Violins of Hope are vessels that bring the past back to life.
As a month symbolic of new beginnings, January—the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz—fittingly marks the opening of Violins of Hope, an exhibition at the War Memorial Veterans Building in San Francisco of 50 restored violins played by Jewish musicians for their captors in concentration camps during World War II. Organized by Music at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame, the eight-week celebration features more than a dozen concerts, readings, ecumenical services and other events. They include the sold-out Jan. 18 gala preview concert and the sold-out Jan. 19 world premiere of a specially commissioned chamber music work, Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope, both at Kohl Mansion. Written by composer Jake Heggie with librettist Gene Scheer, the work stars mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke with violinist Daniel Hope and a string quartet playing instruments from the collection. (Other concerts are scheduled for San Jose’s Congregation Sinai Feb. 9 and San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral Feb. 21.)
Patricia Kristof Moy, executive director of Music at Kohl Mansion, approached Heggie for the commission, knowing of his past works with Holocaust themes. Modern-day musicians have performed classics on the historic violins, but never music about the violins. Based on real-life stories in James A. Grymes’ 2014 book, Violins of Hope, Intonations is a dramatic song cycle—“tuneful,” says Heggie, “but with moments of discord”—in which the soprano is the voice of the instrument, and the solo violinist is the instrument she’s singing about.
In one song, a violinist is ordered by Nazis to play a concert in a gas chamber because of its good acoustics. “He walks in,” Heggie says, “and apologizes to the violin for what he has to do to survive.” In another, a 12-year-old violinist is pulled aside to entertain at a German officers’ club. The boy, who has access to gunpowder, secretly takes it to the club basement in his violin case, lights a fuse and watches it explode, Heggie notes.
Last year, Moy brought four violins over from Israel to be played in Grace Cathedral. “It was so moving, to hear these violins speak after what they’ve been through,” Heggie says. “The people who played them can’t speak anymore. The instrument can speak for them.”