Welcoming ‘Violins of Hope’

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Maltz Performing Arts Center, Maltz Museum to spotlight Holocaust strings

Article Reprinted with permission from Cleveland Jewish News

Debbie Yasinow


It has been said that the sound of the violin resembles that of the human voice. The proximity will come clear both actually and symbolically on Sept. 27, when violins of singular provenance, played by musicians of singular prominence, star at Silver Hall.

Silver Hall, in case you haven’t heard, is the name of the imminent 1,200-seat theater at the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. That arts center is a story unto itself. Another time.

At Silver Hall, Shlomo Mintz, the Israeli virtuoso, will perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Franz Welser-Moest in a program also featuring works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Arnold Schoenberg.

That Sunday afternoon, Mintz will play a Violin of Hope, one of nearly 60 such instruments collected, restored and revived by Tel Aviv violinmaker Amnon Weinstein.

Ideastream will broadcast the Sept. 27 concert live over WVIZ/PBS and WCLV/104.9 FM.

The gala is designed for donors to Violins of Hope, an ambitious, multidisciplinary project involving seven of the most significant cultural institutions in Greater Cleveland. The orchestra’s performance, and Mintz’s turn in particular, signal the launch of a venture so rich it promises to resonate in perpetuity. At least that’s the goal.

This story deals with the first two Violins of Hope expressions: the Sept. 27 concert and “Violins of Hope,” an exhibition that will run at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood through much of the fall and winter.

Four days after Mintz plays the Mendelssohn, “Violins of Hope” opens – by invitation only – at the Maltz Museum, showcasing about 20 of the violins Weinstein has amassed over nearly 20 years. Its purpose is to make voices long gone speak anew. Its vehicle is everyday instruments that, as doppelgangers of their onetime owners, are Holocaust survivors.

The official opening of “Violins of Hope” at the Maltz Museum is Oct. 2. It will run through Jan. 3.

Mid-July conversations with representatives of some of those sponsoring institutions – the Cleveland Orchestra, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Facing History and Ourselves, ideastream, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Maltz Museum – attest to the scope and profundity of a project years in gestation. They also signify an alliance of a type that might not be able to be forged anywhere but Cleveland, according to Richard Bogomolny, who as chairman of the board of the Cleveland Orchestra is in effect the program’s orchestrator.

Many movers and shakers are responsible for Violins of Hope, principal among them violinmaker Weinstein and Bogomolny, who also holds the title of chairman of the Musical Arts Association, the Cleveland Orchestra’s nonprofit parent.

The repairman

Weinstein sounds like a man of zest and passion; he’s also a musical curator of the highest sort. He breathes and thinks violins. He aches for them. He exults in them.

In a telephone conversation from his workshop in Tel Aviv, Weinstein name-checked the great Jewish violinist Isaac Stern in a parable-like anecdote.

“Once people asked him why so many Jewish people played the violin, and so good, by the way,” Weinstein said. “He said it was the easiest instrument to pick up and run away with.”

During the pogroms of the early 20th century, Jews tried to escape with their pianos; the violin, “a very, very Jewish instrument” that is far more portable, got away far more often, Weinstein said.

The violin was an integral part of European life, first through the Italians, then the Jews, and then the gypsies. “Today, it’s not the same anymore,” he said, adding that in the 20th century and into the 21st, many major violinists were and are Jewish: Joshua Bell, Ivry Gitlis, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Mintz, Itzhak Perlman, Stern, and Pinchas Zuckerman.

Weinstein, who was born in 1938 in Israel after his parents emigrated from Poland, lost all his relatives but his parents in World War II. His extended family numbered about 380. Violins of Hope, he suggested, is his way to reconnect with murdered kin.

“It’s like a memorial to the memory of, first of all my family, and then to the six million,” he said. “The violin didn’t change from 1500, when it was created in Italy; we are playing on the same instrument, with some improvements, but (it is) the same sound people had in the Second World War, in the last minute of their lives.

“It was the last human sound that they heard. So if you’re coming to a concert and you can feel the violins, you can hear something that is talking for all this lost generation. For them the violin was the last human voice to listen to,”

The curator

James A. Grymes came to know Weinstein well in researching his book, “Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust – Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind's Darkest Hour on the project.” Grymes said the day Weinstein’s father learned what had happened to the rest of the clan, Moshe Weinstein, who also was a violinmaker, had a heart attack, “and from that point on, he refused to ever talk about the family.” Weinstein’s mother was so grief-stricken she joined her husband in Holocaust muteness.

At the same time, his parents hosted visitors who were among the first wave of immigrant Holocaust survivors. Weinstein, in his bed, would hear these poor souls thrashing and moaning at night in an adjacent room, so the boy “had the physical presence of the Holocaust without the mechanism to talk about it with his family.”

To Grymes, who attended the first U.S. Violins of Hope-related events in 2012 at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, Weinstein “is the thread that holds the project together and the thread that holds my book together.” Grymes’ book won the National Jewish Book Award in 2014.

Grymes, who is neither Jewish nor a violinist, also is curator of the Maltz exhibition. “I’m a music historian and I was so inspired by these stories that I had to write them,” he said.

The orchestrator

Maybe nine years ago, Israel Wiener, arts and culture consultant for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, told his friend Richard Bogomolny about Weinstein and his phoenix-like violins. Bogomolny did nothing with the information at the time.

“We were right in the midst of the recession,” said Bogomolny, adding he didn’t feel Cleveland’s cultural movers and shakers would then “take their eyes off” efforts “to save their own institutions.”

Gradually, the economy brightened, so when the shaliach revived the idea with Bogomolny a few years ago, Bogomolny told Wiener he would “talk to certain people in the community.” His first contact was Milton Maltz, founder and president of the Maltz Museum in Beachwood. Maltz, according to Bogomolny, “immediately said he would like to do a major exhibition at the Maltz Museum including the violins,” and, after Bogomolny told him Weinstein believed repairing and playing them prove “that the voices of their former owners” survive at least symbolically,” the show should tell some of their stories.

After Maltz committed to a major show, Bogomolny recruited Barbara Snyder, the president of Case Western Reserve University, to the cause. Snyder, he said, noted the development of the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center on the Case campus. Wouldn’t a Cleveland Orchestra concert with conductor Franz Welser-Moest and a soloist playing a Violin of Hope be a perfect inaugural event? She asked Bogomolny. The answer will ring loud and clear Sept. 27, when Mintz plays the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the orchestra performs Beethoven’s “Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus” and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Kol Nidre.” The concert will end with Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No. 3”; Bogomolny said Mintz is likely to perform an encore, noting almost every Orchestra violinist will be playing a Violin of Hope.

The facilitator

As vice president of development and university relations at Case Western Reserve University, Lara Kalafatis, who oversees events and donor relations, makes “sure the trains run on time” in regard to Violins of Hope.

Kalafatis said talks between Case Western and the Cleveland Orchestra led to the idea of opening the Violins of Hope program with the concert in Silver Hall, the theater memorializing The Temple-Tifereth Israel leader and prominent Zionist Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.

A steering committee with representatives from all the institutions involved – “we prefer to refer to those entities as our partner organizations,” Kalafatis said – first met in October 2013. The committee includes Hedy Milgrom, vice president, endowments and development at the Federation; Jerry Wareham and Kit Jensen, respectively president/CEO and COO, ideastream; Ellen Rudolph, executive director of the Maltz Museum; and, of course, Bogomolny.

In addition to the programming – musical, artistic and educational – the group raised $1.2 million to fund the project, which also will feature special educational programs at Case for incoming freshmen, a free concert by Cleveland Institute of Music students Oct. 14 at Severance Hall, and community outreach education programs under the auspices of Case Western’s Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program.

“Not only have we programmed together, we have raised money together,” Kalafatis said, “and I think that is something really special.”

“Instead of piece-mealing this, we came together and said, what do we want to stage?”

The impresario

The violins Weinstein resurrects spoke to Milton Maltz with eloquence. To Maltz, who played the violin as a boy, the Violins of Hope represent above all the Jews murdered in the Warsaw ghetto, including people who “made beautiful music and knew they really had no real way to rebuff the Nazis.”

When Maltz and his wife, Tamar, visited Weinstein in his workshop three years ago, Weinstein showed them a violin with a swastika and a “Heil Hitler” inscription inside its body. Years ago, it seems the owner had had the instrument repaired by a German who may have meant to deliver a message warning “the Jews Hitler was going to be our leader,” Maltz said. These violins speak to a vanished, complicated culture, he suggested.

What better way to inaugurate the Maltzes’ namesake performing arts center at Case Western than the Sept. 27 concert featuring these remarkable instruments?

The overseer

Ellen Rudolph, executive director of the Maltz Museum, said “Violins of Hope” will be a “design-forward exhibition” created from scratch. It sounds like it will be an environment unto itself. As of mid-July, it was still being put together.

“It’s meant to feel like you’re entering a kind of jewel box-like space with dramatic lighting, with circular pods that contain the violin cases and spaces that are comprised of strings, which are of course meant to evoke the violin,” Rudolph said. “The exhibition will be a multisensory experience, so it integrates the actual violins with the stories of the people who owned and played them.”

There will be appropriate images and videos as well as a soundtrack blending classical and klezmer strains. At times, local musicians will play the actual instruments.

“We’ll take the violins out of their cases and they’ll literally be brought to life in the exhibition space,” Rudolph said. “Amnon has pointed out that not only have the construction and sound of the violin not changed in hundreds of years but the instruments themselves replicate closely the human voice. Hearing them played is the closest thing to being able to connect with them. The other thing I’m learning about violins and violinists is that the people who play them leave an imprint of the patterns of their play on the instrument. That’s an incredible continuity from the owners of these instruments to the people who are playing them today and the people who are hearing them today.”

Encores for the repairman, the orchestrator

Don’t forget, Amnon Weinstein said, that “one of the most beautiful pieces for violin,” Ernst Bloch’s “Baal Shem,” was written in Cleveland.

“The meaning of that is that we are the winners of this war, not the Germans, not the Nazis. They wanted to kill this outstanding tradition and this tradition is existing, not the Nazis,” Weinstein said.

He collects these violins “all the time, every day” and hopes one day to have them all.

“What Cleveland is doing for this project is beyond all my dreams,” Weinstein said. “It is something so great, so big, so wonderful. I don’t have the words in English to say what I think.”

“This is a program that was brought to the community by some of the heaviest hitters in the nonprofit world in Cleveland,” said Richard Bogomolny. “We all realize the slogan ‘never again’ doesn’t mean anything unless you have many more than just the Jewish people involved in that promise.”

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