Patricia Kristof Moy understands the dramatic role music can play in the human struggle for liberation, both personal and political.
As the longtime executive director of Music at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame and organizer of the expansive two-month Bay Area residency for the traveling music project Violins of Hope, she believes that music is “an important channel for keeping the human spirit alive, as well as the spirit of resistance.”
To hear the cultivated, soft-spoken Kristof Moy, 67, talk about resistance is to discover the strength of her roots in family, music and European history.
Her parents were Hungarian Jews from Budapest, Holocaust survivors and music lovers who both played the piano. “They met around music, began their love affair around concerts — it was all they ever did,” she said in an interview.
They married young but were separated by World War II. Her father, Alexander Kristof, was sent to a labor camp and from there to Auschwitz, while her mother, Lola, and her grandmother went into hiding and later were saved by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Alexander Kristof survived the camps and walked home to Budapest, weighing all of 85 pounds. He reunited with Lola by chance, near the street where they had lived before the war. Everyone else in their extended families was killed.
In 1948 the couple moved to Paris, where Patricia and her younger brother were born; the family moved to the United States when Patricia was a teen. Though her parents made their living in other professions, “I was surrounded by music my entire childhood,” Kristof Moy said.
After studying French literature at Hunter College and Princeton University, she came to the Bay Area with her then-fiancé and returned to the world of music. She has enjoyed a long career, including stints with the San Francisco Opera and Stern Grove Festival and, most recently, 15 years with Music at Kohl Mansion, a nonprofit concert series.
Violins of Hope came to her attention in 2014, when members of a string ensemble told her about their participation in the project’s residency in Cleveland. Their description of the enterprise “took my breath away,” she told J.
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She learned that countless musicians imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps continued to play their violins, violas and even cellos to bolster morale — whether voluntarily or compelled by their captors. Many of these instruments survived, even if their owners did not, and a number of them were carried to Israel after the war. Some found their way into the workshop of father and son violin-makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, who made it their mission to restore them so they could be played again.
“Although my father and I had talked about his wartime experiences, I didn’t know there had been orchestras in the concentration camps,” Kristof Moy noted. “He never mentioned it. He certainly never played in one at Auschwitz — he was a pianist.”
Kristof Moy saw an opportunity to bring VOH to the Bay Area when, in 2016, the S.F.-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced its intention to award 50 new commissioning grants to local arts organizations. San Francisco superstar composer Jake Heggie (his hit opera “Dead Man Walking” premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2000) was her first pitch.
“I told him about VOH and the opportunity to write a new piece for them, and he said yes immediately,” Kristof Moy recounted.
When the Hewlett grant came through, Heggie and Kristof Moy went to discuss their ideas with the foundation’s officers.
“We were a little shy because we thought, foundations don’t get involved in political things,” Kristof Moy said. “But it was really important to us that this project — which is about the persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust — have current relevance. We told the foundation that this would not just be a piece about violins 75 years ago, but rather a message that we can learn from today. Through music, we are trying to put the word out that we are seeing some really worrisome things going on in the world, and that history cannot repeat itself.”
The project got the green light.
Today, Violins of Hope San Francisco Bay Area has evolved from a single commission to a mega event offering more than 72 concerts, talks, exhibits, workshops, films and other presentations, all of which Kristof Moy has overseen with an 11-person team. Central to her purpose is ensuring that VOH reaches a range of Bay Area communities, including those that are underserved or marginalized, schoolchildren and the elderly.
“It has become a project that honors my parents, and in my heart, I wish they could see it. But that is not its purpose,” Kristof Moy said.
Questions about the world’s current injustices “weigh heavily on those of us who have a conscience and want to do some good for humanity,” she said. “We believe that the arts offer a way to strengthen communities. And I hope VOH will spark conversations everywhere about how we can prevent hate and persecution, and strive to understand each other.”