Music and dance have the power to remind us of the triumphs and calamities of history — and to show us that the path forward is one illuminated by heroism and hope. This is the foundation for the Oakland Symphony’s Mahler/Violins of Hope performance Feb. 22 at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland.
Part of the two-month Violins of Hope (VOH) San Francisco Bay Area project presented in association with Music at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame, the instruments played by the symphony include 51 of the VOH collection of 86 string instruments once owned and played by European Jews in the Nazi death camps during WWII. While enduring unspeakable terror, humiliation and pain in the camps, the ability to play these instruments for an audience of their Nazi tormenters sometimes meant those prisoners were spared being sent to the gas chambers.
The symphony’s program includes a note expanding on the importance of selecting Mahler’s work for the Violins of Hope featured event: “Gustav Mahler’s niece, Alma Rosé, was the conductor of the orchestra at Auschwitz, making this performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, on these very instruments, achingly poignant.”
Against the soaring backdrop of the Paramount theater, the two-hour program sets out to remind us of our hope and humanity even as we are aware of our darkest hours. It opens with Anton Vivaldi’s Concerto in F major for Three Violins and Strings, with Oakland Symphony Co-Concertmasters violinists Terrie Baune and Dawn Harms and Canadian guest artist Liana Bérubé, violin. The late English composer Steve Martland’s Crossing the Border for double string orchestra follows. The work is presented with members of the Oakland Ballet Company performing Oakland Ballet Artistic Director Graham Lustig’s Borderland, an abstract ballet originally created for Sacramento Ballet.
After intermission, soprano Elena Galván joins the orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major. Originating from the German folk song, “Das himmlische Leben” (Heavenly Life), Mahler’s one-hour symphony expands on light and darker themes in a child’s vision of heaven.
Violins of Hope’s Bay Area 2020 initiatives include concerts, film screenings, exhibits, and community discussions and panels held in eight counties with 40 partnering organizations.
Restored by highly-regarded Israeli father-son violin-makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, the staggering impact of the instruments on audiences is impossible to overstate. Made with simple wood and strings, sometimes needing as long as a year to restore, each instrument carries within both known – and sometimes unknown — survival stories. Silent for seven decades, hearing the music of these restored instruments reminds us to “never forget” the atrocities implemented and suffered during the Holocaust. With reincarnation, the music represents not only pain and loss, but enduring life, heroic survival and most preciously, hope.