Jonathan Leshnoff: Symphony No. 4 “Heichalos” (featuring the Violins of Hope); Guitar Concerto; Starburst. Jason Vieaux, guitar. Nashville Symphony. Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor. Naxos 8.559809. Total Time: 55:02.
DIGITAL REVIEW – Survivors of the Holocaust are now few in number, and with each passing year it becomes more and more difficult to keep alive the memories of this unspeakable horror – for many young people, even the actuality of the Holocaust barely registers – despite the fact that now more than ever to forget the Holocaust may truly risk a recurrence. This new recording of American composer Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 4 featuring the Violins of Hope is a valuable reminder of what occurred and a powerful teaching tool for future generations.
The Violins of Hope is a collection of instruments, restored by luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, which were played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. Amnon’s father Moshe, a violin maker, was born in Poland and emigrated to Tel Aviv, Palestine, in 1938. There he set up a business, later known as the Violins of Hope, that is today owned by his son and grandson.
While the Weinsteins and their instruments are based in Tel Aviv, the collection has traveled widely in recent years as part of a project to heighten awareness of what took place during the Nazi years. In March 2018, one such project was mounted in Nashville, Tenn. The Nashville Public Library put the instruments on display together with other memorabilia, and other organizations in the city contributed events related to the theme. The Nashville Symphony commissioned Leshnoff to compose a work making use of the Violins of Hope.
To date, of the 66 instruments in the collection, all but two, a viola and a cello, are violins. A history and a description of each instrument can be found online and the full story of the instruments and the men who restored them is well told in the book by James Grymes, Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust – Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour (Harper Perennial. New York: 2014). With few exceptions, these instruments have only modest monetary value. That is not the point. The violins provided hope and comfort to their owners in the worst of times, often during confinement in concentration camps, and survive today as reminders of what took place.
One such instrument is “The Auschwitz Violin,” originally owned by an unnamed inmate who performed in the men’s orchestra at the concentration camp in Auschwitz – and survived.
Abraham Davidowitz, a Jew who fled from Poland to Russia in 1939, encountered the instrument upon returning to postwar Germany to assist Jewish survivors living in displaced people’s camps near Munich. One day, he approached Abraham and offered him the violin. Abraham paid $50 for the instrument, hoping that his young son, Freddy, would play it when he grew up. Many years later, Freddy heard about the Violins of Hope project and donated this instrument to be fully restored.
Leshnoff (born 1973) is a professor of music at Towson University in Maryland. Judaism has been an important source of inspiration in many of his works, including Symphony No. 4. “Heichalos,” the subtitle of the work, refers to an ancient Jewish mystical text, which, according to Leshnoff, “explicitly describes the way to attain a mystical encounter with the higher worlds.” The symphony is a musical depiction of the initiate’s travels through a series of rooms toward communion with the Divine. The work is in two movements with the animated first movement depicting the quest toward enlightenment, and the slower, rather meditative second movement meant to be taken as “a love song between humanity and God.” It is in this second movement that the Violins of Hope come to the fore in extended passages for strings.
The musical language of Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 4 is lyrical and tonal, with strong reminiscences of Mahler and Bernstein; unfortunately, it lacks any distinct personality of its own, and its lyricism is mundane rather than memorable.
Leshnoff has written twelve concertos to date. The Guitar Concerto (2013), like the symphony, is conservative in style and breaks no new ground in terms of guitar technique; nevertheless, it is an attractive piece with lively interplay between the guitar and the wind section and a particularly vivacious final movement. Leshnoff also uses wood blocks with delightful effect at the end of both the first and last movements. Jason Vieaux, the acoustic guitar soloist, plays brilliantly. Born in Buffalo, he studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, concertizes throughout the world and now heads the institute’s guitar department.
Starburst (2010) is an even earlier work and has had some success as a concert opener, thanks to its colorful orchestration and virtually non-stop energy. Like the other works on this new CD, it is well played by the Nashville Symphony under its music director, Giancarlo Guerrero.
On the debit side, it needs to be said that the booklet notes written by Thomas May leave a lot to be desired, especially with respect to the Symphony No. 4. The information provided on the Violins of Hope is totally inadequate. Much of what I have written on the subject I found elsewhere. For example, there is no mention of the number of instruments in the collection, how many were used in the Nashville performance, or descriptions of individual instruments and how they figured in the Holocaust. Nor is there any mention of the Nashville project and how various organizations helped to bring information about the instruments and the Holocaust to a wider audience throughout the city.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org) and www.myscena.org.