From Ashes to Liberation

Open Rehearsals with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra and the Violins of Hope

By Kendall Grady

Theodor Adorno is often misquoted as claiming that to make art, more specifically poetry, after Auschwitz is impossible. What he does caution against, seemingly in allusion to this misattribution—and in a dense thesis about the project of cultural critique made all the denser by opacities in translation from German into English—is the barbarity of total representation. What I can take away from Adorno’s “Meditations on Metaphysics” (Negative Dialectics, 1970) is that “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.”

The tension around cultural engagement after the abomination of the Holocaust is that individuals survived who should not have survived, and individuals died who should not have died, rupturing faith in productive corridors between something-ness and nothingness, the experiential and the speculative, the very capacity to imagine. How can we name atrocity when atrocity defies comprehension? How can we heal a wound without reducing its significance or ceding power to its source? How can we protect the future from a repetition of the past without falling backwards? In the face of seeming irreconcibilities, making art after the Holocaust bears the responsibility of carving new space between preservation and renunciation. One tactic, perhaps, that Adorno offers is to expand the horizon of subjective awareness—to eschew despair without redistributing happiness back to a singular ego—to create, necessarily and only, with the intimate consciousness of trauma that culture has experienced. 

INTONATIONS: Songs from the Violins of Hope (2020) was composed by Jake Heggie with text by Gene Scheer, commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music as an orchestral work to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Inspired by the dedication of Israeli violinmakers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, who worked to restore Holocaust-era instruments. INTONATIONS was presented online during the Festival’s 2021 Virtual Season, and performed live at the 2022 in-person Cabrillo Festival by string orchestra and three soloists. 

Like a phoenix, INTONATIONS begins in “Ashes.” This opening movement contains the lines, “When they told him not to hope/ He played the violin.” INTONATIONS’ final movement, “Liberation,” reprises these lines in the conditional plural: “When they tell us not to hope/ We will play these violins.” This journey from past to future, singular “he” to plural “we,” embodies the cyclical, collective nature of trauma. It is a messy journey toward healing, irreducible and never ending, a reminder that history repeats itself, mutating like a virus which we must recognize and recover from again and again.

It is noteworthy that each of the seven movements in INTONATIONS (“Ashes,” “Exile,” “Concert,” “Motele,” “Feivel,” “Lament,” and “Liberation”) recovers a story inspired by the book Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust (2014) by James A. Grymes, which chronicles the lives of string instruments (84 violins, one viola, and one cello) played by prisoners in concentration camps and restored by the Tel Aviv-based Violins of Hope Project, founded by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein. From a forced concert for Nazi officers in the unthinkable acoustics of a gas chamber, to a young virtuoso smuggling gunpower in his violin case to detonate the officer’s club where he is commanded to perform for his life, INTONATIONS reactivates sites of grotesqueness as well as the beauty of music that pierced these same spaces where not even air could reach. “Listen! These are not simply notes you hear/ But the voices of eternity,” rings the text of “Feivel,” in which an elderly Holocaust survivor gifts his violin to a young boy busking for his family. When the boy returns in gratitude to share his earnings, he finds his patron has swallowed poison, and the responsibility of history—in all its horror and hope—lies inescapably with the next generation.

It is also noteworthy that each of INTONATIONS’ movements takes the first-person perspective of a violin itself, as if these instruments indeed possess personhood, exercise agency, emote or intone. A violin endures a cattle car to Dachau, a violin witnesses fellow instruments broken apart for fuel, a violin asks, “Is it over? Finally Over?/ Did we survive again?” The materiality of the instruments preserved by Violins of Hope is indistinguishable from their memories voiced through INTONATIONS. This is a kind of haptic speech, felt as well as heard, cutting across the bellies of violins and coming to rest in the gut of their audience. The immediacy of wood and ghosts is rendered all the more powerful in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, the threat of nuclear warfare, global economic crisis, and unprecedented climate disasters, to name but few of the many-fingered grip of an anguished world (Did we survive again?). If Adorno has taught me anything, it is that the barbarism and futility of attempting to compare tragedies in a bid to make sense of them will only result in false vindication and greater mystification. What we can do, what we can try to do, is listen into the absence of understanding, mourn what is lost, and celebrate together that which endures.

The Cabrillo Festival’s Open Rehearsals, free to the public, provide space to participate in just such a recovery mission. In rehearsal, the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium hits differently than on performance evenings. A woman knits across from me in the raised horseshoe of seats. Children sit quietly swinging their legs. A violinist reaches forward with the end of her bow to gently flatten the spine of newly minted sheet music. Percussionists signal to maneuver around their platform like chefs warning, “Corner!” Conductor Cristian Măcelaru pauses to mimic sixteenth notes with his mouth. Near the technician’s booth, a couple rests their hands one atop the other’s, fitting like cups. Objects are actively part of this social body, too. Cello cases jigsaw against each other at stage right. In the afternoon light, I can see the carved head of the harp like a Corinthian column and the blocks supporting the sneakered feet of an upright bassist. From my own seat I can pause, as on a still frame of a film, to feel in detail this world that I do not know in expertise. I unpocket my phone and Google, “Are xylophones pitched percussion” and “How big are timpani” (answers: yes and very big). 

Afternoon Open Rehearsals invite me to connect with the material details that engineer the communal space of listening otherwise impalpable during performance evenings. Here, I can reflect on the veiled labor conditions of music and of remembrance. I remember how much I have to learn, and how much I can never master, about the Holocaust and cultural genocides committed before and since. I remember the physical and mental health of dear ones affected by COVID and the social landscapes that have suffered. I remember that in excess of all this public and private pain that I can be moved by the tender note of a single string. I can be moved even by an inaudible inside joke that sends the violin section giggling and stomping their feet in unison.

This incarnation of INTONATIONS: Songs from the Violins of Hope was performed at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Sunday, August 7, 2022, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru and performed by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra featuring mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, violinist Benjamin Bielman, and youth violinist Thais Chernyavsky. In reflecting on its rehearsals and the fruition of its performance, I realize that INTONATIONS is not a totalizing enterprise, but an invitation for vulnerable unknowing. I carry a torch for the anticipatory darkness of my auditorium seat, hoping to see the past illuminated continually anew in the present. And in the face of historical persecution and modern plague, when they tell us not to hope, we will play these violins.

Soloists Thais Chernyavksy, Benjamin Beilman, and Sasha Cooke take bows with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra and conductor Cristian Macelaru.
Soloists Thais Chernyavksy, Benjamin Beilman, and Sasha Cooke take bows following the performance of INTONATIONS with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra and conductor Cristian Macelaru.

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