The Violins of Hope came to Kohl Mansion in Burlingame for a concert Sunday, Jan. 19.
The Violins of Hope are a collection of string instruments that survived the Nazi Holocaust in World War II. Now curated by an Israeli luthier, they tour the world to be performed by local musicians wherever they go, bringing a message of the intensity of the past and of hope for survival. Now they are in the Bay Area for a two-month residency into March, featured in concerts, lectures, films, museum exhibits and religious services.
Sunday’s concert was the centerpiece of the entire residency. The Music at Kohl Mansion concert series commissioned Jake Heggie, distinguished local composer most famous for his operas “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby-Dick,” for a work featuring the violins. Heggie and his frequent librettist Gene Scheer fashioned “Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope,” which received its first public performance at this concert. The lyrics were written in the personae of various individual violins, telling the stories of themselves and their Jewish owners during the war. They were performed here by noted mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.
Meanwhile, distinguished soloist Daniel Hope, music director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, played a solo violin part expressing the same stories and emotions, backed by a string quartet of musicians from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. A young violinist, Sean Mori, joined them for the last piece. All six played instruments from the Violins of Hope, including at least one of the very violins whose stories were being told in the texts.
Heggie and Scheer consider themselves storytellers. Here they have fashioned a gripping 40-minute drama. The anguish and introspection with which Cooke sang her part, reflected with complex coherence in the strings, evoked the dark seriousness of composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Moishe Weinberg, who also had more than a bit to say about World War II. This came out especially in an all-instrumental lament near the end, succeeded by the poignancy of the final song, “Liberation,” expressing hope at the end of the Holocaust and urging us to play these violins if the hatred comes — when it comes, as it is coming — around again. “Cultural memory is short,” Heggie observed in a pre-concert talk. Thus these stories must be retold.
The song that struck me most was no. 4, “Motele.” This tells of a 12-year-old boy, all his family killed, forced regularly to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for the entertainment of German officers. All the while he secretly plans to blow up the officers’ club and eventually succeeds, having smuggled explosives in his violin case. Heggie’s use of phrases from the concerto in Hope’s solo part, transmitted to the quartet and even the vocal line, is most subtle and effective. Neither pastiche nor cut-and-paste, it’s fully integrated. It stands for the split in Motele’s mind between the beauty of the music he plays and the anguish he feels inside, a mixture of emotions expressed in some of the other songs as well. Heggie has found a language to convey this; Scheer’s words show the violins’ role in their players’ predicaments.
Preceding the song cycle, the quartet from the opera orchestra — violinists Kay Stern and Dawn Harms, violist Patricia Heller and cellist Emil Miland — performed two works their instruments could have played back in their earlier concert days: Schubert’s “Quartettsatz” in C Minor and Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80. Both are dark and serious works which received strong and urgently driven performances, setting the tone for the song cycle that followed. As an ensemble, these Violins of Hope have a light, clear sound, with a good balance across the ensemble. The players had to familiarize themselves with these instruments new to them. They succeeded in giving a moving concert.
This program will be repeated twice over the course of the residency: at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, at Congregation Sinai, off Meridian Avenue in San Jose, and in the evening of Friday, Feb. 21, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. At both performances, Nikola Printz will sing and the solo violinist will be Rebecca Jackson. These and many other events in the residency are listed at violinsofhopesfba.org.