“Violins of Hope,” a project featuring stringed instruments preserved and refurbished from the Nazi concentration camps and ghettos of the 1940s, staged a performance of chamber music in Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday afternoon, a concert of complete commitment and flawless playing.
To hear one of these performances, of which there have been several around the Bay Area, is to come face to face with the desperation of the camps at Terezín and Auschwitz, to name a few.
On Sunday, the horror resounded deeply in the music of composers Gideon Klein and Hans Krása, who died in the camps. The instruments they used survived to speak Holocaust history to the world.
More than 40 Bay Area institutions, spearheaded by Patricia Kristof Moy of the San Francisco Opera staff, have collaborated on the project, which includes the commissioning of a song cycle by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, “Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope.”
Violins of Hope SF Bay Area Presentation from Mark Gordon on Vimeo.
In addition to concerts, exhibitions and lectures have been scheduled during the eight-week period.
The most compelling work on Sunday’s program was written by Czech composer Gideon Klein while imprisoned at Terezín. Another Terezín inmate at the time was Viktor Ullmann, who wrote “The Emperor of Atlantis,” a one-act opera that was performed in the mid-1970s by San Francisco Opera. Both died at Auschwitz shortly before the war ended.
Klein’s 1944 Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello was performed on instruments from the 80-piece collection by violinist Raushan Akhmedyarova, violist Adam Smyla and cellist Barbara Bogatin.
There are airs from Moravian folk music, and in the vibrant third movement, molto vivace, one cannot help but hear in the intense, harsh phrases the unmistakable sounds of the trains that carried hundreds of thousands of Jews to the camps. It is a work of many moods, defiant, humorous at times, and profoundly grave.
Hans Krása’s Passacaglia and Fugue in E-flat major and a short piece titled “Tánec” followed, performed by Akhmedyarova, Smyla and Bogatin, the holding cello theme in the latter passed quietly to the other instruments. In the “Tánec,” there were suggestions of Bartók and Shostakovich, and of the dark theme from “Schindler’s List.”
More than once there were references to the Holocaust connections of the musicians. Smyla, in introducing the Passacaglia and Fugue by Krása, revealed in an emotional moment that most of his family had perished in the camps.
The concert began with Malcolm Arnold’s 1940 “Suite Bourgeoise,” a lighthearted collection of jazz, ballad, tango, and even Broadway, which seemed to please the audience as well as the players, flutist Robin McKee, oboist James Button, and pianist Britton Day.
The afternoon ended with Brahms Trio in E flat major, itself a difficult work for horn (Daniel Hawkins), violin (David Chernyavsky), and piano (Asya Gulua).
The players took their time with this stately, plaintive piece and ended an inspiring Sunday afternoon of chamber music to celebrate hope and compassion in our time.
There is more to come in the Violins of Hope series in the Bay Area, and these violins and cellos will continue remind audiences around the world of the Holocaust narrative.