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A powerful, sobering exhibit on the Holocaust and complementary, city-wide programming reinforce lessons of diversity, equity and inclusion
This fall, a one-of-a-kind exhibit Violins of Hope comes to the Posner Center on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus. Free and open to the public from Oct. 7-Nov. 21, the exhibit shares powerful stories of string instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. In tandem with this moving and important offering, several other events and productions take place around the city.
Header Photo Courtesy of: Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh
Individuals can experience the Posner Center exhibit on their own or alongside a trained docent who will share the narrative behind each instrument, explore the propaganda campaign that transformed an entire social network and give insight into the powerful role music played in the life of prisoners. (Group tours will be available, too, and special tours will be offered to local middle and high school groups.)
Violins of Hope showcases 20+ surviving instruments from the Holocaust accompanied by storyboards, photos and videos documenting the story of each, as well as that of its founder, Amnon Weinstein. Sandy Rosen, Chair Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh, says, “One story recounts a Jewish violinist who played at an Auschwitz death camp; others tell remarkable tales of violins passed down through generations, often the sole remaining possession of a family member.”
Another set of traveling instruments will be played by musicians throughout the region, including in State College and Wheeling, West Virginia.
Rosen’s journey began nearly five years ago when she volunteered to be a docent in the Violins of Hope exhibit in Phoenix. That exhibit took place just a few months following Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue tragedy, and when she saw the power of the stories and the lessons they helped to convey, she believed the project must come here, too.
“I want to emphasize the profound significance of the Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh project and the valuable lessons it holds for all of us,” she says.
“These remarkable instruments, once silenced by the horrors of the Holocaust, now resound with stories of resilience, hope and the enduring power of music.”
“The Violins of Hope remind us of the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity,” she continues. “Despite unimaginable suffering, the musicians of the Holocaust found solace, inspiration and courage in their music. Their ability to create beauty amidst chaos serves as a testament to the indomitable nature of the human soul. It teaches us that even in the darkest of times we possess the power to find light and create beauty through our talents and passions.”
“Violins of Hope teaches us about the dangers of prejudice, discrimination and hatred. As victims of the Holocaust, they stand as a stark reminder of the consequences of intolerance and bigotry. It is crucial to understand the lessons of the Violins of Hope and apply them to the world we live in today.”
“With rising instances of antisemitism in recent years, the educational experiences offered through this project are even more vital.”
In the end, Rosen and team hope the message brings more joy, more inclusion, more resistance, and, of course, more hope to the community.
“We also hope guests can carry forward the lessons of the Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh into their daily lives,” she says. “Embrace the values of resilience, empathy, inclusivity and the transformative power of education and art. Use their voices to promote understanding, seek justice, and stand up against injustice and discrimination in all its forms.”
For its 100th production, Quantum Theatre returns to Rodef Shalom Congregation with The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (The Chagall Musical), opening Oct. 28, and playing through Nov. 26 (Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.).
Paired with Violins of Hope, this Klezmer musical by Daniel Jamieson and Ian Ross, based on the love story of artist Marc Chagall and his poet wife, Bella, takes its name from the Lithuanian city where Chagall was born (1887) — and for the relationship memorialized in many of his paintings.
Artistic Director Karla Boos says, “Violins of Hope has the word ‘hope’ in its title, and I do think it’s meant to prompt thoughts of survival and how good can’t be suppressed, will overcome. Among all the offerings in town, our Flying Lovers about the Chagalls really leans into that hope, being about survivors, so I think audiences will take joy in that away, and amazement at this story of the 20th century; all these things that happened and people who overcame are the shoulders we stand on.”
This is the second project that Douglas Levine, keyboard/music direction, orchestration and additional arrangements, has done with “visionary” Karla Boos. (He’s been active in the local theater and music scene since the early 90s as a pianist, composer, music director and educator.)
Summarizing the production, he says, “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is the story of Marc and Bella Chagall's meeting, courtship, marriage...their life, love and so much art, beautifully and at times dreamily rendered through words and live music.”
Levine continues, “Ours will be a reimagining of the inspired original script and score of Kneehigh's The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. [The show’s director and choreographer Gustavo Zajac] is adding a handful of beautiful Yiddish folk songs from his youth, which magically support the story, and which many in our Pittsburgh audiences will recognize — and everyone will enjoy.”
Levine says he’s had the rewarding opportunity to both re-orchestrate the original score, as well as arrange and orchestrate the additional Yiddish music. “PLUS,” he adds, “I get to perform the score live with two fantastic local musicians, violinist Cara Garofalo and reed player Lenny Young. For me, live music and theater, like Marc and Bella, are a match made in heaven!”
Director and choreographer Zajac grew up practicing Jewish folk dance, and later became a professional dancer. He directed and choreographed shows in Argentina, Japan, Korea, Mexico and the U.S. “My connection to my roots made me work on Fiddler on the Roof many times and I even danced in a show called CHAGALL,” he says, “so when I mentioned my background to Quantum's artistic director Karla Boos, she offered me to direct this production.”
Zajac explains the production as a journey on two different paths: the intimate story between Marc and Bella Chagall, and the history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. “Both stories are conveyed through the eye of Chagall's unique and fascinating art,” he explains.
Zajac hopes audience members will learn more about Chagall’s particular journey, yet also understand the challenging path required for any artist.
“The show may affect the audience in many different ways, be it for historical reasons, emotional reasons, artistic reasons and even religious reasons.
Chagall continued, “There are multiple elements that make The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk a most unique and special experience.”
The most fulfilling part for Zajac has been bringing his family's history onstage, and paying homage to his own heritage. “At the same time, I feel represented by Chagall as an artist in his search for his own truth and his struggle to be seen and heard,” he adds.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gets involved, too, with two Violins of Hope programs — PSO360 on Oct. 18, and the full orchestra Violins of Hope concert with Joshua Bell on Nov. 25.
Mary Persin, Vice President of Artistic Planning of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, says:
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the entire city of Pittsburgh to come together and give voice to lessons and stories of the Holocaust, while using music to point toward a better future, build bridges of understanding and forge deeper connections across our community.”
Persin says that, together with Music Director Manfred Honeck, the full Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and guest soloist Joshua Bell, they’re honored to share their special program inspired by hope and the power of the human spirit. “Our concert begins with the world premiere of a new work by Israeli composer Boris Pigovat titled Yizkor (may God remember),” she says, “and written in commemoration of the five-year anniversary of the Tree of Life tragedy.”
“Internationally renowned violinist Joshua Bell joins to share the moving Nigun from Bloch's Baal Shem, Three Pictures of Chassidic Life, as well as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, both works performed on the Huberman Stradivarius violin. The evening comes to an inspiring close with Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, a stirring emblem of hope and freedom.”
Persin believes that the power of coming together as a community in the shared experience of music offers an inspiring reminder of our common humanity — even amid division, strife and suffering.
“On some level, music is a vehicle to engage people in the common search of who we are, and who we want to be, thus granting us perspective on the world, along with the true sense that we are all a part of the same world,” she comments.
“Together with this comes the idea that we can continue to learn from each other, and even from our darkest hour, ultimately leading to healing, a strengthening of our common bonds and a path to move forward where we will be committed to never again make the same mistakes.”
She believes that exploring and experiencing this incredible music — some of which was written and performed by composers in the concentration camps — serves as a powerful reminder of the tremendous strength and ultimate resilience of the human spirit.
Persin has found it incredibly heartening to witness the overwhelming unity and support across the entire Pittsburgh community from so many arts organizations, cultural institutions, universities, high schools, places of higher learning, community spaces, religious organizations, groups and individuals — who’ve all united to take an active role in this important and powerful community initiative.
“As we look across the seven consecutive weeks of Pittsburgh-wide programming,” she says, “it is inspiring to see this tremendous opportunity for dialogue, healing and shared understanding.”
For more information about Violins of Hope, please visit their website. For even more community events supporting Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh including dance concerts, exhibits, lectures and more, please visit their calendar of events.
All photos credited to Daniel Levin are from his upcoming exhibition for Violins of Hope - The JCC’s American Jewish Museum exhibition of 43 photographs by Daniel Levin chronicles the work of Amnon Weinstein, the master violin maker and restorer of the Violins of Hope. Mr. Levin visited Weinstein’s Tel Aviv workshop to photograph the restorations in progress and is the only photographer to capture his masterful techniques to save them from being erased from history. The free exhibit runs Oct. 15, 2023 – Dec. 8, 2023.