WORDS John Pitcher
In 1986, Mark Freedman paid his first visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. Located in the heights of western Jerusalem, the museum is a sacred place filled with old sorrows. As he left the building, a deeply affected Freedman began composing a poem in his head.
“There are six million songs lost / in the hills of Jerusalem,” Freedman mused. “We are here in search / of these melodies. Each note a generation gone / every phrase dispersed among the heavens.”
Freedman, who’s now executive director of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, spent the better part of three decades wondering about the true meaning of his words. Then he heard about Violins of Hope.
The name refers to a community-wide, interfaith project that will dominate Nashville’s arts and culture scene for the next several months. The centerpiece of the project is thirty-six historic violins that belonged to Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. These instruments, lovingly restored and on loan from Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein, will be on display at the Nashville Public Library’s main branch March 26 to May 28. Twenty-four of those instruments will also be played and recorded in various concerts around town.
In all, about two dozen Nashville arts, educational, and religious organizations will participate in the project. Some, like the library, will present programs directly related to the Holocaust. Others, like the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, will stage exhibits dealing with tolerance and social justice. All programs promise to be spiritually uplifting events that will serve an important civic purpose.
“We’re hoping our events drive a community-wide discussion about hope, diversity, civil rights, and censorship,” Nashville Symphony chief operating officer Steven Brosvik tells Nashville Arts Magazine. “We want there to be a serious interfaith dialogue in Nashville.”
No doubt, much of the conversation will center around the violins themselves. Weinstein began researching, collecting, and restoring these instruments in 1996. Some of those in the exhibit, like the Barns Violin and the Yaakov Zimmerman Violin, are decorated with Stars of David. A few are known for their especially tragic histories.
The Auschwitz Violin, for instance, was once owned and played by an unknown musician in that concentration camp’s orchestra. Musicians in this ensemble were forced to play for newly arrived inmates as they were herded off trains and marched into the camp. The ensemble also played in the mornings as prisoners were led out of the camp to do forced labor, and it was sometimes required to entertain their Nazi captors.
“The first time I saw the Auschwitz Violin, I could feel its energy,” says Nashville Symphony President Alan Valentine. “It speaks without even being played.”
The Nashville Symphony played a leading role in bringing the Violins of Hope to Music City, and it will take full advantage of these glorious instruments while they are in town. To celebrate these violins, the orchestra has commissioned a new work by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff. His Symphony No. 4 “Heichalot” will receive its world premiere at the Schermerhorn March 22–24, with the NSO’s violinists performing on the Violins of Hope.
“We’ll be recording Leshnoff’s symphony for future release on the Naxos label,” Valentine says. “We’re honored because this will be the first time these violins have been featured on a professional recording.”
The NSO will present several other events related to the Violins of Hope this spring. On April 12, it will host along with the Jewish Federation a Holocaust Memorial Day at the Schermerhorn. This will be followed by a performance featuring famed Israeli conductor and violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who will join NSO concertmaster Jun Iwasaki to perform Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. (This concert repeats April 13–14.)
“We’re hoping our events drive a community-wide discussion about hope, diversity, civil rights, and censorship.”
On May 9, violinist Joshua Bell will appear with the NSO to perform Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Bell will perform on the Huberman Stradivari, named for the noted Jewish Polish violinist and conductor Bronislaw Huberman, founder of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. The season will end May 31 to June 2 with a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, a work that the Nazis had once required inmates to perform at the Terezín concentration camp.
Nashville Ballet’s contribution to Violins of Hope will be a staging of Light: The Holocaust and Humanity Project at TPAC’s Polk Theater. This was initially staged in 2005 by Ballet Austin and recounts the life of Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren. The work is divided into five sections arranged to music by contemporary composers Steve Reich, Evelyn Glennie, Michael Gordon, Arvo Pärt, and Philip Glass. Light is an abstract piece and not a literal retelling of the Holocaust, so it can relate to all forms of injustice.
“Light is a reminder of the fragility of human rights,” says Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling. “[It’s] incredibly relevant for the times in which we live.”
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts had already planned to present several exhibits this winter and spring related to diversity and civil rights. “We thought these themes dovetailed nicely with Violins of Hope,” says Katie Delmez, a curator at the Frist.
Exhibits will include Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex, a photography exhibit at the Frist Center from February 23 to May 28. This exhibit was created by photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, who spent more than thirty years documenting conditions at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Other exhibits include We Shall Overcome: Civil Rights and the Nashville Press (March 30 to October 14), a compilation of photographs from the Tennessean and Nashville Banner documenting the civil rights movement in Nashville; and Nick Cave (through June 24), an artist whose sculptures, installations, and performances examine issues of identity and social justice.
Nashville took a leading role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, becoming, among other things, the first city in the South to desegregate its lunch counters. That tradition of tolerance has continued into the 21st century, with Nashvillians, for example, rejecting the English Only Amendment to the city charter in 2009. So it’s not surprising to see so many Nashville groups participating in Violins of Hope. Other organizations include the Blair School of Music, Tennessee State Museum, Intersection, Congregation Micah, Christ Church Cathedral, and more.