NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — For months, The Soraya held a secret: A priceless treasure had been stowed away under the stage, its whereabouts known only by a select few.
The Violins of Hope arrived in Los Angeles just as the pandemic was shutting everything down. The concerts that had been scheduled around the area were all abruptly canceled, but the instruments were already here.
What You Need To Know
- Violins of Hope is a project of concerts based on instruments owned by Jews before or during World War II
- Concerts scheduled around Southern California had to be canceled due to COVID-19
- The collection of violins was then hidden for six months under the stage at The Soraya Theater in Northridge
- Three musicians were able to play some of the instruments before they were shipped back to Tel Aviv
“It was kind of devastating,” violinist Niv Ashkenazi said of the cancellations. “It took a little while to kind of adjust and figure out what can we still do."
For the past six months exactly, the violins have stayed secure and hidden in the empty theater. In September, they were finally shipped back to Tel Aviv, but before they left, they were brought out into the lights to be seen — and played — by world class musicians.
Ashkenazi, the only musician in the world to have one of the violins on long-term loan, was one of them.
“It’s nice to actually get to have them come out again before sending them off,” he said. “It’s an emotional experience especially once it sinks in, the stories connecting them to a physical object.”
Each violin has a unique story, but they share a common thread: All were owned by Jews before or during World War II. They survived the Holocaust before finding their way to the Weinstein family in Tel Aviv, who began the project of preserving them and documenting their history, some dating back as far as the 1770s.
The Soraya Executive Director, Thor Steingraber sees this as another chapter in their incredible tale. “Now all of those instruments share this really strange story of being hidden, quarantined together, in Northridge,” he said.
While he didn’t have to do anything with them day to day, Steingraber said it still felt like a responsibility. “There was a little earthquake," he said. "I worried about the violins and, you know, as fire season started again, I just...I worried about the violins.”
Seeing them returned to Tel Aviv has been a bit of a relief, he said, but it’s also been a difficult reminder.
“I had no idea how sad I would be,” said Steingraber. “I was really struck with the pain of our two years' worth of work that would not come to fruition.”
Those two years were spent carefully coordinating concerts and events during the collection's visit to Southern California, none of which actually happened. But he did get a bit of closure, he said, seeing them brought out of storage from under the stage.
“They were all in cases just sitting on stage platforms in a dark basement, and like so many precious objects, they just looked everyday things, looked like one more day at the theater,” he said. “And then we opened the cases one by one and started to get them out and it was very powerful. I consider myself very lucky to have spent a few moments with those instruments.”
Steingraber was also able to hear the instruments played. Lindsay Deutsch, Niv Ashkenazi, and Janice Mautner Markham each got to select an instrument from the collection, tune it, and play one piece of music. They also had a call with Avshalom Weinstein, who told them the story behind the instruments they chose.
“It was important that violins be heard in Los Angeles and played in Los Angeles,” Steingraber said. “A musical instrument is a living thing. As soon as they took their bow to the instrument, the instrument was talking.”
These last-minute performances were captured on video to be shared at a future date, giving the public a chance to experience the historic collection at least in some way.
Ashkenazi explained that seeing and hearing the Violins of Hope live can hit you on a whole other level. “But we have been working hard to make it as intimate and as much of a real life experience as possible through film," he said.
He’s calling this filmed concert the "finale for now." As for the instruments returning to L.A. in the future, Ashkenazi said they don't know yet.
"We are still hoping."
Hoping — exactly what this collection of violins is meant to inspire us to do.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the title for Thor Steingraber. The error has been corrected. (Sept. 28, 2020)