For Young Listeners, a Poignant, Relevant Reminder of History

United StatesUnited States Finzi, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, John Williams, Bloch, Bruch, Rossini: Sara Bogomolny, Diana Frankhauser, Stuart Hoffman, Michael Knobloch, Meg Martinez, Michael Randall, Stella Singer, Joseph Virgo (actors), Donald Carrier (stage direction), Peter Otto (violin), Charles Bernard (cello), Cleveland Orchestra / Brett Mitchell (conductor), Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center, Cleveland, Ohio, 10.3.2017. (MSJ)

'Violins of Hope' with the Cleveland Orchestra (c) Roger Mastroianni
‘Violins of Hope’ with the Cleveland Orchestra (c) Roger Mastroianni

Finzi – Prelude for string orchestra
Prokofiev – Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op.34
Shostakovich (arr. Lucas Drew) – Allegro molto from Chamber Symphony, Op.110a
John Williams – Main Theme from Schindler’s List
Bloch – “Simchas Torah” (“Rejoicing”) from Baal Shem
Bruch – Kol Nidrei, Op.47
Rossini – La scala di seta Overture

Are we doomed to repeat our history?

Not if we do the work necessary to wake people up with the arts, humanity’s mirror. In light of fractious political movements worldwide, this Cleveland Orchestra presentation of “Violins of Hope” can be seen as not merely an educational program, but a critically important call for awareness. The presence on stage of actual musical instruments that survived the attempted genocide of a people gave the concert an aura of sacred ritual.

The show featured six actors talking about and reenacting scenes from Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust. They constantly shifted roles, playing characters ranging from a baby to Amnon Weinstein, the violin restorer behind the “Violins of Hope” project. Over the last two decades, Weinstein put out a call for violins that had survived the Holocaust, and then restored them into playable condition. The collection has traveled around the world and been played by major ensembles including the Berlin Philharmonic, and in the instruments’ 2015 U.S. debut, the Cleveland Orchestra.

But much has changed since 2015 in the United States. With the rise of hate crimes, including—as I write this—graffiti spray painted on a Seattle synagogue claiming that the Holocaust was “fake history,” this program has grown frighteningly relevant. Just as cowardly antisemitism, racism, and homophobia have been making a comeback in some circles, they have been joined by anti-Muslim hatred. A program such as “Violins of Hope” can give impressionable young audiences the truth about what is at stake.

The music was led with poise by Brett Mitchell, the Cleveland Orchestra’s outstanding associate conductor. Mitchell started with Gerald Finzi’s gravely beautiful Prelude for string orchestra, one of the few orchestral works by the always expressive but never prolific English composer, born of a Jewish family, though himself an agnostic.

Prokofiev’s otherwise slight Overture on Hebrew Themes served as a perfect backdrop to tableaux of generations of Jewish life, religion, and tradition, with the actors portraying families, rabbis, musicians and more. A prayer shawl was transformed from wedding canopy, to baby blanket, to final shroud. The characterizations were rich and vital, though it was slightly distracting—with the masterful Cleveland violinists behind them—that the actors didn’t quite grasp how to authentically hold and mime playing a violin. But one accepts the suspension of disbelief and rolls with it, particularly when the scenarios are so moving. The enactments made the Prokofiev work more compelling than it has ever been on its own.

The “Allegro molto” from Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony (an arrangement of his harrowing String Quartet No. 8) brought to life the terror that came with the rise of the Nazis and their attendant monstrosities. Mitchell’s direction made the explosive movement part of the program’s whole—intense but less violent than it might be in a complete performance, and showing a shrewd sense of musical storytelling.

Violinist Peter Otto was featured in the main theme from John Williams’ touching score to the film Schindler’s List, and the lively “Simchas Torah” (“Rejoicing”) from Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem. Respectively, they expressed the devastating personal losses of families, communities, and traditions, and then the joy of freedom at the end of the war and the liberation of concentration camps. That Otto played on an actual instrument that accompanied people through these events was powerful: the violin became the palpable voice of the departed.

But there were more prayers and stories to be told. As the script said, “Silence comforts the oppressor, not the oppressed.” A musical prayer was offered, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, with Charles Bernard richly conveying the cello solo. The actors then told the story of violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who formed the Palestine Symphony—today the Israel Philharmonic. Their first concert was in 1936, led by Arturo Toscanini, who opened with Rossini’s overture to La scala di seta. Mitchell made no attempt to imitate Toscanini’s fierce manner, again maintaining the program’s context: joyous in relief, but guarded.

The orchestra performed this important program six times to student audiences in the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, reaching three thousand elementary and middle school students, who had been prepared with in-class study guides. The seriousness and attentiveness of these young thinkers are reasons to hope that this time, history will not be allowed to repeat itself.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Leave a Comment