Beethoven, Violins of Hope kick off year

by Philip Campbell

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is a current artist-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Stephanie Girard
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is a current artist-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Stephanie Girard  

There is a message of hope in every wish for a Happy New Year, and we all need every assurance we can get. Music is always a reliable source, and the start of 2020 promises heartening chances to renew our faith in the future.

The San Francisco Symphony begins exciting programs curated and performed by current artists-in-residence Jan. 9-12 at Davies Symphony Hall. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, a frequent collaborator with Michael Tilson Thomas, is first. World premiere performances of MTT's "Meditations on Rilke" and selections from Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" include bass-baritone (barihunk) Ryan McKinny.

Celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birthday start Jan. 16-18 with MTT conducting Piano Concerto No. 2 featuring soloist Emanuel Ax. The most recognizable name in Western music and arguably the most influential, Beethoven's imperishable legacy deserves a big bash. The titan who bridged the Classical and Romantic eras forever resonates. The West Coast premiere of "Fountain of Youth," an SFS co-commission by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Julia Wolfe, opens the bill.

"Beethoven250" continues Jan. 23-25 as Dima Slobodeniouk makes his SFS debut conducting the Symphony No. 7. An example of the composer's more optimistic side, the Seventh was also one of his own favorites. On Sun., Jan. 26, "violin royalty" Anne-Sophie Mutter, the second member of the SFS artists-in residence trio (soprano Julia Bullock is third), plays three of Beethoven's sonatas in an evening at DSH with longtime recital partner pianist Lambert Orkis.

The party runs through the season, but a special heads-up for Feb. 7-9, when revered SFS Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt (renowned Beethoven master) returns to DSH to conduct the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 21. Written as the composer began to acknowledge his increasing deafness, the Second still maintains a happy attitude. The work's characteristic power and wisdom attest to Beethoven's unbreakable spirit.

SFS Music Director Designate Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the orchestra Feb. 27-29 in the Overture to "King Stephen," with other works that include Salonen's own Violin Concerto with soloist Leila Josefowicz, and Carl Nielsen's sweeping Symphony No. 5. www.sfsymphony.org.


One of the so-called Violins of Hope coming to the Bay Area. Photo: Courtesy Amnon Weinstein  

Music at Kohl Mansion's presentation of "Violins of Hope San Francisco Bay Area" includes public performances, exhibitions, forums, films and events Jan. 16-March 15, coinciding significantly Jan. 27 with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau to honor the victims of Nazism. In 2020, the need to confront and remember the past remains incontrovertible. "Violins of Hope [VOH]" is a deeply moving and informative project that helps us note and better understand the incomprehensible. A private collection of violins, violas and cellos assembled since the end of WWII all belonged to Jews before and during the war. To quote the project's website: "All instruments were symbols of hope and a way to say: remember me, remember us. Life is good, celebrate it for those who perished, for those who survived. For all people."

Father and son luthiers (violinmakers) Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, who work in Tel Aviv and Istanbul, own the collection. They ensure surviving instruments, mostly "rather cheap and unsophisticated," are renewed with a sound ready to be heard triumphantly once more. "VOH" events cover the entire Bay Area. Visit: www.violinsofhopesfba.org.

Some important San Francisco dates include: Jan. 17-March 14: Exhibition: "Violins of Hope, A Journey of Heroism, Healing and Humanity." Veterans Gallery, Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., SF. Free. Tues.-Sat, 1-5 p.m. (650) 762-1130.

Sun., Jan. 19 at 1.30 p.m.: Discussion/Performance: James Grymes, author of "Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust, Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind's Darkest Hour." Co-founders of "VOH" Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein appear with violinist Hannah Tarley, who performs on instruments from the collection. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SF. Tickets ($6-$16): (415) 655-7800; www.thecjm.org.

Mon., Jan. 27, 7 p.m.: Discussion/Performance: International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz; remarks by guests including A. & A. Weinstein; musical works by J.S. Bach and Hans Krasa performed by New Century Chamber Orchestra, with pianist Simone Dinnerstein; excerpts from Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's "Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope" with mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, violinist Hannah Tarley and a string quartet from San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Presented by Music at Kohl Mansion in association with Congregation Emanu-El, the Consulate General of Israel, San Francisco Interfaith Council and Jewish Family and Children's Services Holocaust Center. Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., SF. Free with reservations (650) 762-1130; https://tinyurl.com/Jan-27-tickets.


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