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For most of its history, UNC Charlotte has been a distant and diffident partner in the cultural life of its namesake city. Programming was enhanced when the grand Robinson Hall replaced Rowe Theatre as the performing arts hub of the campus in 2007, yet publicity was still preponderantly via press release, and events were exclusively on campus, closer to Concord than the pulse of Charlotte’s nightlife. But with the opening of the UNC Charlotte City Center Building last August, we have seen the beginnings of a dramatic turnaround. Chamber music performances have already begun, there are art exhibits in the lobby and the Center City gallery, and now with "Violins of Hope," the University’s College of Arts + Architecture is presenting a ten-day event with multiple concerts, lectures, and exhibitions that are exploding all over town.
The centerpiece of the celebration is an exhibit at the Center City Gallery of 18 violins rescued from the Holocaust – a symbolic number for Jews, signifying life – and restored to playing condition by master violinmaker Amnon Weinstein. It’s the first showing of the collection in the Western Hemisphere, complimented by a world premiere exhibit, “Not So Still Life, With Music.” Adjacent to the handsomely presented violin exhibit, the lobby is hung with nearly all of the 20 paintings by Ralph Gilbert commissioned for the corresponding number of volumes in the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, encompassing more than 700 recordings issued on the Naxos label. After a preview concert at Myers Park Baptist Church on April 12 titled “Hope in Resistance: Music and Stories Inspired by the Resistance Movement,” the celebration came to Knight Theater three nights later with its opening concert, “Restoring Hope: Amnon Weinstein and the Violins of Hope.” Hosted by Weinstein, the evening was a mixture of documentary film, personal reminiscence, and music played on the restored instruments by the likes of Shlomo Mintz, Chad Hoopes, Paco Montalvo, and Julia Hwang.
Most of the Violins of Hope were in their own spotlight, standing upright on the right side of the stage as the concert began. Weinstein introduced each of the remaining violins before it was played, providing information about its owner (if known), special characteristics of the instrument, and to whom its preservation is dedicated. After they were played, Weinstein would carefully return each violin to its proper place among the others, usually adding more commentary as he did. As part of his hosting chores, Weinstein spoke at length about the place of the violin in klezmer culture during the Holocaust. A main function of the music was to pacify fellow prisoners in German concentration camps as they filed in to be gassed. Recalling the first violin that was brought to him for repair by a survivor from the Auschwitz Men’s Orchestra, Amnon described opening the instrument and finding ashes inside – presumably fallout from the crematoria. There was no turning back from that. Even the one moment of levity that Weinstein allowed himself during his remarks had a rueful edge as he recalled the great Isaac Stern’s explanation of the special affinity between the Jewish people and the violin: “It’s the easiest instrument to pick up and run for your life.”
The remainder of the light-heartedness came from the music, especially the outer Allegro movements of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins. Mintz, Hwang, Hoopes, and Montalvo fronted the performance with Charlotte Symphony associate conductor Jacomo Bairos leading a small – and delightful – UNC Charlotte Chamber Orchestra. There have been acoustic problems at previous symphonic concerts at the Knight, but the projection screen and curtain behind the players acted like an acoustic shell, keeping the sound bright and well-defined. Hwang, Hoopes, and Mintz all had chances to shine in the opening movement, but it was pretty much Mintz’s show in the concluding movement. In the middle Largo, the UNCC ensemble capably came to the fore, but Bairos didn’t allow the pace to slacken into dreariness.
Logically enough, Weinstein’s disquisition on klezmer was followed by a medley of unidentified traditional tunes played by an intriguing duo. Steven Greenman ably presented the melody lines on one of the restored violins, but this was my first exposure to the tsimbl, the hammered dulcimer of klezmer music, played by Peter Rushefsky. Gone were the usual klezmer laughs and wails that come with the more customary pairing of violin and clarinet. In its place was a softer, more contemplative texture as the duo performed their medley. Yet after a particularly keening, pleading lament, Greenman and Rushefsky were able to push the tempo of their final song to a rousing climax.
Nobody brought the audience nearer to the experience of concentration camp living than Holocaust survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz, who offered her personal reminiscence of famed violinist Alma Rose. The niece of Gustav Mahler, Rose became the leader of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra and saved all of her musicians from the gas chambers. This stirring testimony was followed by Weinstein’s daughter-in-law, Sevil Ulucan Weinstein, playing a couple of the concert pieces most requested by Rose’s Nazi captors. Ably accompanied by Sander Sittig at the piano, Weinstein played a lovely “Liebesteid” by Fritz Kreisler without any special virtuoso flair, but she suddenly became more intrepid and charismatic when she followed with Vittorio Monti’s crowd-pleasing Czardas. The harmonics did pose some intonation difficulties, but the rest was truly brilliant.
Written in 1920, Ernest Bloch’s powerful Violin Sonata No. 1 acquired darker flavorings in the Holocaust context of the evening. Played by Sittig and Mintz, the Jewish composer’s piece seemed more savage and intense than the recorded version I have at home by violinist Haggai Shaham and Arnon Erez. But this too proved illusory when I spun the CD afterwards. It was watching Mintz expend that energy, slashing that venerable violin that Weinstein had loaned him for the occasion that really made the difference. The violence in the opening Agitato became horrific and the ethereal section later was nearly heartbreaking before a desperate return to the opening savagery. Six million souls were layered onto the elegiac opening passages of the ensuing Molto quieto, which has an eerie midsection introduced by virtuosic pizzicatos and harmonics, building to new anger and agony before subsiding into nostalgic mourning. Mintz’s manic plunge into the final movement turned its Moderato label into a sardonic joke, but after the double-stopped fireworks, he transitioned gorgeously into the quiet, restless midsection. The binary structure repeated itself in the second half, more agonized in the turbulent section, more desolate in the aftermath, with Sittig adding moonlit lyricism from the keyboard.
For more information on the "Violins of Hope" series of exhibitions, performances, film screenings, and education programs through April 24, see their website.