Violins of Hope
See fully-restored Holocaust-era violins on display and in concert only in Cleveland.
By Annie Zaleski
Thanks to its world-class museums and arts institutions, Cleveland has hosted many groundbreaking artistic exhibitions and events. But the forthcoming Violins Of Hope Cleveland-whose first major public event, a sold-out concert at Case Western Reserve University's restored Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at the Temple-Tifereth Israel, is September 27-might be one of the most ambitious cultural projects ever to occur in Northeast Ohio.
Seven arts, music and educational organizations are spearheading a series of concerts, lectures, educational events, musical broadcasts and art installations centered on Violins of Hope, a collection of Holocaust-era violins painstakingly brought back to performance shape by Tel Aviv-based violin maker Amnon Weinstein.
These particular instruments belonged to Jewish musicians, who were an integral part of Germany's pre-World War II cultural landscape, performing everything from classical compositions to traditional klezmer music. Once the war broke out, some musicians hid the instruments or were forced to set them aside. Others were able to seek solace in the instruments, drawing on the power of music to momentarily escape from the horrors of concentration camps and genocidal violence. (In fact, some violinists played in the camps as part of SS-formed orchestras, which often ended up saving their lives.) Many of these violins remained silent even after World War II ended, some because their owners perished in the Holocaust and others because those who survived the camps couldn't bear to play them.
Nineteen Holocaust-era violins from Violins of Hope will be on display starting October 2 at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, as part of a new exhibit that's also titled Violins of Hope. Each instrument in this exhibition, which runs through January 3, 2016, has a compelling backstory.
All but one of the instruments on display at the Maltz Museum are from the collection of Amnon Weinstein, who has made it his mission to repair these instruments in order to underscore the resilience of Jewish culture and ensure those who perished in the Holocaust are never forgotten.
"If we are listening to the violin today, we are listening to the same sound the poor people who went to their deaths were listening to then," he says. "This was the last human sound that they heard in their lifetime. That's the power of this project-the power of listening to something that's on one hand horrible, but on the other hand, it's wonderful. It's music."
For the Maltz Museum, translating this powerful sentiment into an exhibit necessitated creating an "immersive experience" that would "tell the stories of the people who owned these violins in a way that would be exciting, interesting and poignant," says executive director Ellen Rudolph. As a result, the 4,000-square-foot, multi-sensory exhibition space itself is distinctive from the museum's previous installations, especially from a design standpoint.
The Violins of Hope exhibit will also feature videos, as well as text written by James Grymes, the author of the book Violins Of Hope, to create emotional resonance and impact.
Perhaps more important, the violins won't just be displayed while in Cleveland. In the Maltz Museum gallery, musicians from the Cleveland Institute of Music and Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music will occasionally perform pieces of music using the instruments. (Members of the Cleveland Orchestra will also be performing with these violins during separate concerts.)
That these violins are being used is of vital importance to Weinstein. When he receives an instrument to restore, his "main goal is to put them in a condition that you can play a concert in a concert hall," he says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these performances are often as moving for the musicians as they are for audience members.
"Each musician who is playing on one of these instruments-number one, he wants to know everything about the violin," Weinstein says. "All the stories. Number two, he's not playing 100%-he's playing to 500% of his abilities. And number three, as they're giving back the instrument, you can always see wet eyes. It's difficult for them to give it back."
The Violins of Hope Cleveland program was organized by Richard Bogomolny, the chairman of the Cleveland Orchestra's board of directors. He first learned about the opportunity to bring the violins to the city via Israel Weiner, an arts consultant for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Intrigued, Bogomolny decided to reach out to his friend Milton Maltz, who immediately said he wanted to do a major exhibit at his namesake museum.
The scope of the project quickly expanded well beyond just an exhibit. As Bogomolny approached other organizations about possibly bringing the violins to Cleveland, he discovered not only great excitement about the project, but an incredible spirit of cooperation.
"Each of these institutions was committed to doing what they do very well, and trying to make something happen using the theme of the violins," he says. "Which has been the theme from day one, basically: We're all in this together."
As a result, Violins Of Hope Cleveland evolved into an unprecedented collaboration between Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Institute of Music, The Cleveland Orchestra, Facing History and Ourselves, ideastream, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Maltz Museum. These core partner institutions-and more than a dozen affiliate organizations across Northeast Ohio-are hosting a robust number of events as part of the project. (View the entire calendar here.)
"It's such a special opportunity to be a part of this incredible collaboration," Rudolph says. "The collective resources of all of these partner organizations is just astounding-to have them come together in this way is very exciting."
These events are frequently cross-cultural. For example, the Maltz Museum is premiering an original Violins of Hope piece it commissioned from the Groundworks Dance Theater, as well as presenting a concert by the Miami, Florida-based Holocaust Survivor Band, which is traveling to Cleveland especially for the show.
And during the first week of December, the Cleveland Orchestra is holding a series of educational concerts for middle and high school students, which will combine classical music and dramatic elements with readings, poetry and tableaus-in short, exploring "several ways to bring to life the messages of the music, and the messages of resilience and resistance and hope that are the enduring themes of this project," says Joan Katz, the Cleveland Orchestra's director of education and community programs.
Above all, Violins of Hope Cleveland speaks to music's immense and seemingly endless capacity to inspire and transform the human condition. "[Music is] a completely international language," Weinstein says. "Music is life."
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