Reading Symphony Orchestra finishes ‘Violins of Hope’ with gorgeous, thought-provoking concert

During a lecture last Thursday at Albright College, James A. Grymes, author of the book “Violins of Hope,” recalled a dinner he had in Israel with Amnon Weinstein. Weinstein restored the violins that Grymes wanted to write about, historic violins connected to the Holocaust and Jewish life in Europe. Weinstein was curious that Grymes wanted to write about the subject, despite not being Jewish. Grymes responded that the stories of the violins were not Jewish or gentile, but of interest to all of humanity.

The prevailing idea of “Violins of Hope,” the series of Holocaust events and exhibitions that have taken place in Berks County over the last two weeks, is that of the importance of humanizing the victims of the Nazis. When we see a number as staggering as 6 million Jews killed, it is difficult to take into account that these were 6 million human beings with names, faces, hopes, dreams and families.

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The Holocaust did not only destroy millions of lives, but also destroyed life itself, the things that give life meaning and make it worth living. Jews not only lost their physical lives, but their livelihoods and their life’s work. How many Jewish musicians were banned from performing and stripped of their beloved instruments? How many were killed, robbing humanity of combined centuries of beauty and creative genius? Even in the inhospitable environment of a concentration camp, music still survived. Prisoners gathered to sing and play instruments. They needed it – when there was no food, the music fed their spirits. Jewish composers wrote music on whatever scraps of paper they had. After a grueling week in a concentration camp, just five minutes of music on Sunday was all the prisoners had as a reminder that beauty and humanity still existed. In their scarcity, food and music became ever more precious and fulfilling.

The Reading Symphony Orchestra’s poignant “Violins of Hope” concert Saturday night was a glorious finale to the two-week event that encapsulated its central theme – how music illuminates our shared humanity.

On Saturday night, musicians from various backgrounds played music by two composers. One, Max Bruch, was Protestant. The other, Gustav Mahler, was Jewish. Both incorporated Jewish themes into their music. Bruch was so moved by the Jewish melodies that he heard, he turned them into the haunting Kol Nidrei, a piece named after the declaration in synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It did not matter that the melodies were Jewish and he was not – beauty was beauty, devotion was devotion. He had a respect for cultures and traditions different from his own.

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The RSO played the Kol Nidrei, with many of the violinists playing on the actual Violins of Hope. They were joined by internationally-known cellist Amanda Forsyth. Throughout the performance, she cradled the cello and looked upon it like it was her child. It is clear that the cello is her life, the culmination of years of practice, passion and study. Jewish victims of the Holocaust felt the same connection. Fievel Wininger called his violin, one of the Violins of Hope on display, “friend.”

Photo courtesy of Susan Angstadt: Cellist Amanda Forsyth performs “Kol Nidrei”, by Max Bruch.

Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is one of the two pieces that the composer is most known for. The other is his Violin Concerto No. 1, which the RSO played alongside renowned violinist Pinchas Zukerman. Moshe Weinstein, Amnon’s father, gave Zukerman his first violin. Zukerman played with marvelous technique befitting his fame, and the weight of history that accompanied the concert. The Violins of Hope are witnesses to history, silent unless they are in the hands of a skilled player. Zukerman’s violin sang, cried, lamented, bore witness.

Listening to its passages, I could not help but think of life in the camps, the millions of lives upended and extinguished, and the lingering trauma of the survivors. Despite being written years prior to the Holocaust, the Concerto, in this context, told the story without words.

The concert concluded with a powerhouse performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. Due to their Jewish influences, both Bruch’s and Mahler’s music was banned by the Nazis. The fact that such great music, one of the purest expressions of human life, would be banned is yet another testament to the Nazis’ barbaric cruelty. Music is life, and even the Nazis knew that. They tried to eradicate both the Jewish people and their music. Thankfully, both survived.

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Wes Cipolla
Wes Cipolla
I cover local news, culture, and business in Berks County.
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