By Bob Doerschuk
They were laid out on white cloth, violins in an anteroom near the Schermerhorn Symphony Center stage. In front of each, a white card bore the name of the person who would play it that night and the two nights that followed.
On March 22, 23, and 24, these members of the Nashville Symphony would set their instruments aside and take up the ones from this collection that they had selected a few days before, when rehearsals began for an event so extraordinary that the center’s 1,800 seats had sold out quickly for all three performances.
Often it’s a superstar guest soloist or yet another night of Star Wars bombast that boosts attendance. This time, it was these instruments that drew so many to the Schermerhorn.
In the 1930s, when reports of the Nazi atrocities began to be heard in Palestine, many musicians there vowed to rid themselves of their German-made violins, violas, and cellos. For Moshe Weinstein, a luthier in Tel Aviv, it became a personal mission to rescue them from destruction.
“After all,” says Moshe’s grandson Avshalom “Avshi” Weinstein, “it wasn’t the instruments’ fault.”
After World War II, Weinstein continued to expand his collection. This time, though, the violins that came his way told a different story. Most of them had endured unimaginable conditions, having been played in concentration camps by prisoners, sometimes to create a false sense of assurance as new inmates arrived, often for the amusement of the camp overseers.
“Some of these people stayed alive because they were able to play their violin,” Weinstein notes. “This is how they survived.”
Moshe, his son Amnon, and now Avshi have dedicated their lives to these instruments. They’ve been able to restore most of them. Some were too far gone. One arrived with a shocking message inside—a swastika and the words “Heil Hitler, 1936” carved into it. These instruments will never be restored, though they too play a role in this collection.
They, too, are Violins of Hope. It is a collection of violins that have been displayed and played throughout the world, from the lobby of the Berlin Philharmonic to the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland. Yet they’d never been recorded in performance until the Nashville concert, which included the world premiere of the first piece ever written specifically for this collection, Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 4 “Heichalot.”
Some of these people stayed alive because they were able to play their violin. This is how they survived.
The program opened with concertmaster Jun Iwasaki rendering the solo part to John Williams’ Three Pieces from Schindler’s List. With its emphasis on playing without bravura but rather with fidelity to the melodies, Iwasaki felt initially he would best be able to meet this challenge on his own Hieronymus II Amati, which, as he puts it, “can let me tell the story I want to tell.”
“Jun is a soloist, a perfectionist,” explains the symphony’s music director Giancarlo Guerrero. “When I told him, ‘I want you to play one of these instruments for the Schindler’s List,’ he was like, ‘Well, I’ll need to check the violin.’ But I was sure he’d find an appropriate instrument. In fact, I even said, ‘What if we use three violins—one for each movement?’”
Guerrero laughs and adds, “He said, ‘Well that may be too much. Let’s just go with one.’”
And so Iwasaki stood before the orchestra at the opening of each of these concerts, holding what is known in the collection as the Auschwitz Violin. Built by J. B. Schweitzer, it had been played in the camp by a prisoner who subsequently sold it to Abraham Davidowitz. His son Freddy later donated it to the Weinsteins.
Though aware of its history, Iwasaki set it aside to concentrate fully on honoring the music. “I have a feeling that a lot of my colleagues read up on the different instruments online before they went to choose from them for the concerts,” he says. “But I didn’t want the look or the story to affect my decision. I was mainly concerned about whether it would project, so I decided to try it and if the balance didn’t work out, I’d use my instrument. But the Weinsteins did a great job of getting this violin to a condition where it could soar and sing over the orchestra. Also, I was pleased that it felt very similar to my violin in size and in the thickness of its neck.
“So I played it happily . . . and sadly.”
Onstage, Iwasaki insists that “I tried not to think too much about the lore and the pain and the suffering—if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to play. But toward the end of the third piece I did start thinking about these things. It got pretty intense. When I walked offstage after my final curtain call, I let out a huge sigh of relief.”
The Nashville Symphony concerts also featured one viola and one cello from the Weinstein collection. Additionally, a Nashville resident donated his acoustic bass, whose previous owner had been saved by Oskar Schindler. It rotated among members of the bass section from one night to the next.
It is no dishonor to the music, the performance, or the Violins of Hope to say that the audience’s silence might have been the emotional peak of the evening, especially in the breath that separated the final B-flat of the Leshnoff symphony and the opening B-flat of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. With the former piece highlighting the violins through intense but muted mid-range minor themes, the Adagio lifted them toward an ecstatic conclusion. This arc was deliberate, Guerrero affirms—a metaphor for the triumph of light over shadow.
“A lot of people will never forget this concert,” he says. “I’m certainly one of them. At the end of the Barber, with 1,800 people holding their breath, not wanting to ruin the moment . . . . It was the beauty of that very deep silence that made the magic happen.”
The Violins of Hope will remain in Nashville, on display in the Main Public Library, through May 27.