The Violins of Hope

An instrument from the Violins of Hope collection, on display in the Nashville Public Library in 2018.

An instrument from the Violins of Hope collection, on display in the Nashville Public Library in 2018.

In 2008, Tel Aviv luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein brought a number of restored stringed instruments to Jerusalem. They were played by members of the Symphonette Orchestra and the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Shlomo Mintz.

But these were not just any stringed instruments. They were previously owned mostly by amateur, street and klezmer musicians during the Holocaust. Many of these violins, violas and cellos had been played in concentration camps, labor camps, and Jewish ghettos, and were ornately decorated with mother of pearl inlays or Stars of David on them. When the Weinsteins initially received these instruments, most were in poor condition - some without strings, others held together with rubber bands.

From that beginning, Weinstein's ‘Violins of Hope’, as they are collectively known, traveled from Israel to Switzerland, Spain, Rome, and other countries around the world. In 2016, Nashville Symphony commissioned Jonathan Leshnoff to write a work for the Violins of Hope, and in 2018, these instruments landed in Nashville, where Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero and Nashville Symphony gave the premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff's dramatic and meditative Symphony No. 4, ‘Heichalos’.

Inspired by an ancient Jewish mystical text, ‘Heichalos’ features 22 stringed instruments from Weinstein's collection. Now Leshnoff's symphony, along with his Guitar Concerto, featuring soloist Jason Vieaux, and overture-like ‘Starburst’, can be heard on a Naxos album, scheduled for release on May 2, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah).

Composer Jonathan Leshnoff.

Composer Jonathan Leshnoff.

The recording of Leshnoff's Symphony No. 4 conveys a powerful sense of immediacy, not least because the composition demands much from the restored string instruments. The driving rhythms in the opening set a mood of apprehension, but in the lyrical second part, the restored instruments seem to speak to us directly, almost intimately.

In the Naxos recording, Leshnoff's score proves a persuasive vehicle for the Violins of Hope. One can feel a palpable sense of the symbolic power within these instruments, bearing powerful witness to a terrible time in human history, when a virus of race, class and religious hatred was allowed to spread.

Yet the instruments also signify humankind's capacity for resilience. For Jonathan Leshnoff, the fact that they still exist shows a kind of triumph under the worst possible circumstances.

"If these violins could talk," Leshnoff said during a recent phone interview, “we would be in awe. They have seen a lot, not just the systematic murder of people who were not liked, but ultimately a sense that these evil forces didn't win. These instruments sing the praises of anyone persecuted or seen as an underdog."

Leshnoff said he wanted to make his score personal for each listener. For instance, there are two quiet moments in the contemplative Part II- one at the very beginning, and one at the very end. In the opening of the second movement, Leshnoff inserts a brief pause, with the question “who do you love?” written above the staff lines. Then, as the last notes are being held out, the score asks the question “where are they now?”.

According to Leshnoff, when the work ended at the Nashville premiere, the audience sat in stunned silence.

"So many people attended," Leshnoff recalls. "I even met a few nuns - everyone was trying to connect to humanity, to something deeply spiritual and authentic."

Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony Music Director

Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony Music Director

For Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero, the instruments carried a special poignancy on a basic level. "They belonged to normal people and were played by amateurs," he said. "They were not Strads."

Guerrero called the instruments "silent witnesses to some of the darkest moments in human history. This is all we have left."

Leshnoff's score quickly became personal to Guerrero, who knew from experience how history can upend and destroy lives. As an eleven-year-old, the Nicaragua-born conductor escaped with his immediate family to Costa Rica during the country's bloody civil war in the 1970s.

As a conductor, however, Guerrero also had to consider practical matters. For one thing, he wasn't quite sure if the restored instruments could be heard in the 1800-seat Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Moreover, he wasn’t even sure if his musicians would be able to play them.

"For a string player, the instrument is like an extra arm," Guerrero said. "It can be very difficult to play an instrument you've never played before."

Jun Iwasaki, Nashville Symphony Concertmaster

Jun Iwasaki, Nashville Symphony Concertmaster

For Jun Iwasaki, the Nashville Symphony's concertmaster, the ‘violin of hope’ he chose was used at the Auschwitz concentration camp. "I thought I could create a good sound with it," said Iwasaki, who also performed as a soloist in John Williams' theme from ‘Schindler's List’ at the Leshnoff premiere.

"I tried to block my mind while performing," Iwasaki said. "If I thought of the history of that violin while playing, I would have had to stop."

Iwasaki added that when the Violins of Hope arrived in Nashville last Spring, the musicians were "more excited than scared. Everyone had time to choose and reserve what they were going to use."

Kristi Seehafer, Nashville Symphony First Violin

Kristi Seehafer, Nashville Symphony First Violin

Kristi Seehafer, the orchestra's first violinist, chose a violin once belonging to a klezmer musician, which she was able to perform with in a synagogue before the Nashville Symphony concert. "We didn't know the history of the violins," Seehafer said. "(However), we did learn that the ‘barn violin’ was named in memory of Jews rounded up in Poland and locked in barns that were lit on fire."

Seehafer, whose uncle was an anti-Semitic Polish officer, said she felt she was "righting a wrong in some way" when she converted to Judaism. The rest of her family is not Jewish. "Doing a recital with this violin in a synagogue was one way for me to connect to the Jewish people and the Holocaust."

Seehafer added that she's especially looking forward to hearing the Nashville Symphony's live recording of Leshnoff's Symphony No. 4. "In recital with a string quartet, I could really feel the instruments, but sitting in a big string section with a full orchestra, you don't hear the piece as a whole."

Now, listeners everywhere will have a chance to hear the Nashville Symphony's remarkable live performance of Leshnoff's score on the Naxos release. And in case you're wondering how we'll be able to tell the modern instruments from the restored historical ones, Guerrero has an answer.

"Anytime you hear the strings in Jonathan's symphony, those are the instruments. Those are the Violins of Hope."

- Written by Rick Schultz

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.