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Benefit concert fights grim reality of war in Ukraine

Berlin Letter: Violinist Daniel Hope understands forced emigration and violence

In the dark of Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church, a sad lullaby washes over the rapt audience. Fighting back tears, violinist Daniel Hope pours out the sweet-and-sour melody by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov.

Sitting in the front row is the 84 year old who has just fled his native Kyiv and this televised benefit concert organised by Hope, one of the most prominent violinists of our time, is to raise money for those left in Ukraine’s grim reality of war.

“What’s happening in Ukraine feels terribly familiar in an awful way, the inexorable rolling of the machinery of death and destruction,” Hope told The Irish Times before the concert. “We thought we had all seen the end of this in Europe but now it has raised its head with such an intensity and vigour, it’s terrifying.”

Like those fleeing Ukraine today, his family experienced forced emigration and arbitrary violence, but also the kindness of strangers

The concert is an evening of terrible beauty: from a Beethoven take on the Ukrainian folk song Minka to, in an untelevised encore, a new composition that came to Silvestrov on his chaotic flight from his homeland.


This evening is personal for Hope, and not just because he is a regular visitor to Odessa and has many friends there. The 48-year-old was born in Durban but has a complicated family history: Irish-Catholic meets German-Jewish via South Africa and England.

Twists of fate

Like those fleeing Ukraine today, his family experienced forced emigration and arbitrary violence, but also the kindness of strangers and unlikely twists of fate.

Daniel was just a baby when he experienced homelessness first-hand. His writer father Christopher Hope’s critical books about the apartheid regime were banned and, when the family decided to leave, the only option on offer was a permanent exit visa.

Uprooted to 1970s England he faced an uncertain and stateless future, and salvation came twice over. First, his mother Eleanor found a job as assistant to, and later manager of, Yehudi Menuhin. The world-famous violinist became a “musical grandfather” to the red-headed Daniel who, aged three, announced that he, too, wanted to be a violinist.

Salvation came a second time in the form of Irish passports via Daniel Hope’s great-grandfather, Daniel McKenna. He left his home in Waterford to fight for the British against the Boers. A lucky flutter on the horses gave him the capital for a hotel and a new life in the South African town of Balfour.

He never returned to Waterford but now Hope has, joined by his father, in an engaging documentary for French-German broadcaster Arte. (Available, too, on RTÉ's website here.)

I feel the heavy heart even in the lighter Irish music that moves me to tears. It is tremendously emotional but never overdone

After visiting the family cottage on Summerhill Terrace, standing on a hill overlooking Waterford at sundown, Christopher Hope reflected on how their lives were on a knife-edge after departing South Africa.

“Nobody would have had us,” he said, “but thank God for the Irish.”

Daniel Hope’s musical journey around Ireland in a Morris Minor Traveller is filled with performances with musician friends such as harpist Siobhán Armstrong and fiddler Seán Smyth. The Irish music he is drawn to, Hope says, retains elements of “slight melancholy and utter joy I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

‘Tremendously emotional’

“I feel the heavy heart even in the lighter Irish music that moves me to tears,” he said. “It is tremendously emotional but never overdone.”

Living in Berlin with his wife and sons is a return to where his mother’s family, the Valentins, once lived. They lost family members to the Holocaust and also their former home, a villa in a leafy Berlin street. First it became a private Jewish school, then a wartime cryptography centre – the Nazi equivalent of Bletchley Park.

The McKenna-Valentin-Hope family biography of life and loss have informed the violinist’s entire career. In concerts and albums he has championed music composed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and saluted German refugee German composers in 1940s Hollywood, like Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman. His latest album, America, is a melodic melting pot of musicians from emigrants and emigrant families: George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Kurt Weill.

As the number of Ukrainians fleeing west rises beyond three million, Daniel Hope looks back on his trip to Waterford with a new poignancy.

After restless years trying to piece together his scattered identity and the frailty of life, Hope found in Ireland a “connection that was tremendously inspiring and heartwarming”.

“The trip brought it back to me: this is not just a passport, this is a major part of who I am, who my kids are,” he said. “Without that Irish citizenship, our whole lives would have taken a very different turn.”