Two years ago, I was writing in these pages about the local residency of the Violins of Hope. These are instruments owned by Jewish victims or survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Collected and restored by an Israeli luthier, they are regularly sent out to be displayed and performed on. Their music breathes defiance of the Nazis and hope for survival.
In early 2020, they were here, on the Peninsula and in San Francisco. Many inspiring concerts ensued. Their final major appearance was to be with the Peninsula Symphony that March 13 and 14. That did not happen, however. Those were among the first concerts canceled because of the pandemic.
Last week, on Friday, April 8, that concert finally came to be, at the Heritage Theater in Campbell. The program was repeated on Saturday, April 9. As planned two years ago, it featured works from the classical repertoire associated with Jewish music in one way or another. Many of the players of the Peninsula Symphony had put down their regular instruments and taken up the violins and other string instruments of the Violins of Hope. At music director Mitchell Sardou Klein’s signal, the players held up their guest instruments for a round of acknowledgment.
Guest soloist Cihat Aşkin is a Turkish violinist who has regularly participated in the Violins of Hope project since its inception. He played an instrument known as the Auschwitz Violin, which survived employment in the work orchestra at that death camp. On it he essayed the solo part of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. As one of the most popular works by a greatly renowned composer of Jewish descent, this was a choice designed specially to defy the Nazis.
Aşkin played in a crisp, dry style. His clean and precise fingerings and bowings reached their peak in the bouncing spiccato he gave to the main theme of the finale. With Klein’s and the orchestra’s support, the concerto was presented in a plain and unpretentious manner, nothing lush or extravagant, a simple offering of a worthwhile composition.
Aşkin also played solo violin in his own arrangement of the Jewish liturgical themes for the prayer “Avinu Malkeinu.” This was a gentle rendition with plenty of solos for orchestra members and some strikingly stark duets for Aşkin and principal cellist Kirsten Shallenberg.
Assistant conductor Hoh Chen led Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Jewish Themes. Prokofiev, who was not Jewish, had been commissioned to write this by a New York Jewish chamber ensemble. (The orchestral version, played here, dates from years later). All that Prokofiev had to work from was a book of transcriptions of Jewish klezmer melodies. He had probably never heard any klezmer. But while the result is a bit half-hearted in conveying klezmer energy, it catches the spirit and instrumentation of that form of Jewish folk music. The orchestra expressed that spirit in this performance.
The concert concluded with Klein conducting Three Jewish Poems by Ernest Bloch. Bloch, a Swiss Jewish composer who moved to the United States while this work was under preparation in the 1910s, reflected his Jewish heritage in many of his compositions, though they were not based on Jewish thematic material. By “poems” it turns out that Bloch means tone poems, in the 19th century manner though his musical idiom is entirely early 20th century.
Each of the three movements is a substantial work with a strong narrative flow and a great variety of moods. The final movement is a funeral march, beginning slowly and building to an anxious and dissonant climax which Klein sees as a premonition of the Holocaust. That view made the music particularly appropriate for this concert. The orchestra played these difficult scores very impressively.
After its free family concert in Millbrae May 1, Peninsula Symphony’s last program of the season will be June 17 and 18 in San Mateo and Campbell. The program will be all-American, including works by George Gershwin and Florence Price. Violinist Tessa Lark and bassist Michael Thurber will give the premiere of Thurber’s double concerto. The symphony has also announced its 2022/23 season, which will begin in October with Natasha Paremski playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2.