If you ask 35-year-old violinist Daniel Hope about his Jewish heritage, make sure you have time. It’s a complicated question.
“On my mother’s side was an incredibly Orthodox Jewish family that goes back to the first rabbi of Potsdam,” he said during a recent late-night cell phone call while in transit to Hamburg, Germany, for a concert the next day.
“They gradually became more assimilated into German society until they converted,” he said, citing a similarity to Mendelssohn’s family in the 19th century.
Hope, widely regarded as one of the finest violinists of his generation, performs the original 1844 version of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, along with Erwin Schulhoff’s Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, arranged by Hope from the original for flute and piano, this weekend with conductor Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
The program, which also offers a Kahane favorite, Kurt Weill’s Symphony No. 2, is linked by the fact that the music of all three composers was banned by the Nazis. Schulhoff died in Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942, and Weill, who was already a prominent Jewish composer (his father was a cantor), fled Germany in March 1933.
The London-raised Hope said he was “an enormous mixture.” He was born in South Africa, but his parents, who criticized that regime’s policy of apartheid, were living under surveillance. After his Irish-Catholic father’s books were banned, the family was forced to leave; Hope was 6 months old.
Hope speaks eloquently of having a “Jewish soul,” and given that he’s spent the past 15 years researching, performing, recording and writing about music banned by the Nazis, that soul must run very deep.
His most recent discs for Deutsche Grammophon include “Air: A Baroque Journey,” the Mendelssohn Concerto and “Terezín/Theresienstadt,”with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and he said his connection to composers like Schulhoff started “completely by chance,” when he was driving home after a concert.
“A string trio came on the radio that sounded a bit like Bartók, Stravinsky and a bit of Janácek,” he recalled. “I pulled over and waited to hear who it was: Gideon Klein. “He was the young motor behind Theresienstadt, who encouraged composers not to give up hope, but to write. And that’s what got me going. The music is what grabbed me. The story behind it is extraordinary, but I didn’t need the story to appreciate the music. The music speaks for itself.”
Klein died in 1945 at the Fürstengrube concentration camp soon after finishing his trio. He was 26.
Hope, on tour recently with von Otter performing Schulhoff’s solo and chamber music, said he was “longing for a piece of his that had an orchestral accompaniment.” Since Schulhoff didn’t live to compose a violin concerto, Hope arranged his score for flute and piano.
Kahane shares with Hope a personal connection to this music (one of Kahane’s relatives died in Theresienstadt, another in Auschwitz), and he first heard Schulhoff’s work a few summers ago. “I was flabbergasted by the depth and profundity of his music,” Kahane said. “Schulhoff left an important and wonderfully diverse legacy.” He called the Double Concerto “evocative and very likable” with a “joyous” last movement. And he places Weill’s “stunningly orchestrated” Symphony No. 2 with the best music being written during the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Hope said he was looking forward to performing the original version of the Mendelssohn concerto with Kahane’s band. Mendelssohn, whose father, Abraham, was responsible for the family converting to Christianity, speaks to Hope on a very personal level. “I’ve always found that Mendelssohn goes back to his Jewish roots,” he said. “I hear that in his music, and that’s what I love about it. My Jewish side is extremely important to me. I feel very much in touch with it in every piece I play, and in the violin itself.”
Hope came to the violin in what he called a “weird and wild coincidence,” when his mother became secretary (and later a manager) to the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin had an immediate impact on his family, and by the age of 4, Hope was hooked on the violin.
“It was one of those small moments in life that changes everything,” he said, citing the “sheer originality of Menuhin’s musical expression.”
“Menuhin was able to look at a phrase and tell you a whole chapter about a piece,” Hope recalled. “I was on tour with him, and he was conducting the Mendelssohn Concerto, and there’s this beautiful song that happens between the violin and orchestra in the introduction to the last movement. And Menuhin likened it to a young man talking to his rabbi — the consoler. The young man asks the question [Hope sings it as Menuhin once did for him], and the rabbi answers [he sings again]. The way he sung and portrayed that ... every time I play the piece, I think of him.
“The greatest victory as far as all these composers are concerned is that we’re playing them today,” Hope continued. “The fact that most of them were killed means their music was still stronger — it survived the terrible behavior of human beings. For me, that’s the greatest possible victory.”
Violinist Daniel Hope and pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane perform selected pieces by composers Schulhoff, Mendelssohn and Weill on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Sunday at 7 p.m. at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Westwood. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.laco.org.