Janice Mautner Markham, the violinist for klezmer-rock band Mostly Kosher and director of the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Youth Orchestra, has deep family roots in music and connections that branch out all over the Los Angeles arts scene. Her collaborations range from klezmer to classical, folk-rock and jazz ensembles, and Mostly Kosher performances range from house concerts to the Skirball Museum and Disneyland.
In November, Markham was one of only three LA violinists invited to play at the Soraya Performing Arts Center at Cal State University Northridge on one of the Violins of Hope, a traveling collection of instruments that survived the Holocaust and have been restored by master luthier Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshi in Tel Aviv.
The Soraya had borrowed some 30 violins for a series of high-profile concerts and outreach events set for March and April across Los Angeles, with headlining artists like Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman as well as artist-in-residence Niv Ashkenazi, who had worked with Violins of Hope before. Markham, who knew Ashkenazi through musicians’ circles, says she began working with LA’s Violins of Hope project chair Suzanne Reyto in 2019 to promote the series at Mostly Kosher’s performances.
The Soraya’s 2019-20 season opened with Perlman and his accompanist Rohan de Silva. “Mostly Kosher was asked by the Soraya to play for the opening and closing receptions, which was quite an honor,” she says. “That kicked off the whole Violins of Hope season for me,” said Markham.
But she hadn’t expected to perform for the series herself. “This is the irony—all of a sudden I started being involved in a number of concerts for Violins of Hope. My students in the Jewish Youth Orchestra were set to play at Holocaust Museum LA, formerly known as Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and then Mostly Kosher was scheduled to play at Temple Israel of Hollywood, and I was going to be playing one of the rescued violins.”
Mostly Kosher was set to go on tour and return for the opening concert, but when the pandemic hit, just after the violins arrived, everything was suddenly canceled. What no one knew, says Markham, was that the Soraya could not send the violins back, because Israel went into full lock down. So the directors secretly stored these irreplaceable violins under the Soraya’s stage until they could be returned.
“I found out about this only when I was asked to be part of this short documentary about the instruments,” Markham recalls. “This was during the time of the earthquakes and the fires in September. It was literally biblical—famine, plague, fires, the virus.” For more than 7 months, the Soraya and the Violins of Hope remained secure—but silenced.
Just before returning the violins to Israel in December, Soraya director Thor Steingraber decided to capture something of their beauty and significance by filming a documentary with interviews and solo performances from Markham, Ashkenazi and Lindsay Deutsch. Avshi Weinstein, speaking from Tel Aviv, met with the artists and Steingraber on a video call to talk about the origins of the violins they were playing and how the collection started.
Each violinist chose from a selection on each of three distanced tables in the theater. Some of the violins were concert-quality, some were already antique in the 1940s, some were defaced or instruments Jewish musicians were forced to play in the Nazi orchestras. And some were the inexpensive “street violins” used by city buskers and most klezmer fiddlers. Deutsch’s choice was a high-quality German antique from the 1700s, and Ashkenazi’s had been played in Auschwitz.
“My table held instruments that were considered klezmer violins, not concert violins,” says Markham. “I ended up choosing one called the Lion’s Head. It just had a very beautiful shape, the carving of a lion’s head on the scroll. Niv was trying not to steer me, but he said, ‘I think you’re going to like this one.’ It had a wonderful warm tone. I was going to be playing a couple of songs with parts in the lower register.”
Markham opens with a Mostly Kosher standard, “Reb Dovidl.” “I wanted something familiar, and it was literally the first piece that came to mind.” That leads into “Di Sapozhkelekh (My Boots),” a slow piece she calls “a bit of a love song.” The deep-toned violin is unexpectedly rich and poignant in her hands, not strident, and Markham credits that to the Weinsteins’ painstaking restoration.
“The violins all sounded incredible. The care they took, for sound, for the visual, for the integrity of the instruments—if they had to replace a tuning peg, they discovered what region of Poland the pegs came from. It brought me to tears the first time walking onstage and seeing them.”
The experience also reminded her of her self-taught grandfather’s “Gypsy violin” as he called it, bought on the streets of Budapest, and which her cousin recently passed to her. “The S holes look like they were cut out with a knife,” she says, and her grandfather’s and uncle’s initials were scratched into the back.
Markham says one reason she was honored to perform at the Soraya was the chance to revive music that hasn’t been played for decades—not just to save the violins, but the music and how it’s expressed. “Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather. His style was to play a melody, not bravura—it was beautiful and accessible, you could hum along. That’s what I tried to express.”
Despite the success of Mostly Kosher, Markham says, “Klezmer and Yiddish music are still relatively new to me, I’ve really only been playing them for 10 years.” Her violin training was classical. Her father favored Gershwin, the Beatles and American standards, but the first music she remembers singing was her grandfather’s Hungarian and Yugoslavian folksongs. At the 2014 KlezKanada workshop where she began to dig into the stylistic differences, musicians were trading tunes. When she played one of her grandfather’s, “Someone said, ‘You play like a Hungarian fiddle player.’ I thought, OK, I am!”
Her grandparents left for America before the Holocaust, and the violin came with them, but much of her remaining family in Hungary died in Auschwitz. “So the violin is a surviving element of my family,” she says, and her grandfather passed on his love of music. “During the Depression, my grandparents paid $1.50 per kid per lesson for my dad and uncle for classical training. That would be like spending $200 today! Both my dad and my uncle Art (z”l) became music teachers. In turn, I’m a musician, my middle sister is a professional cellist and my little sister is a wonderful pianist. My cousin Alan, a cellist, is a conductor at LACHSA and the La Mirada Symphony Orchestra, and my cousin Liane is a studio violinist.” Her generation’s children are also growing up musical, and her father’s and uncle’s students—and their students, and Markham’s own—now number in the thousands.
“I think it’s especially fitting that we’re talking about this for Holocaust Remembrance Day, the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Sometimes I think about this in reverse, the lives lost and the musicians who perished—the generations of future musicians that never came to be. So I don’t take the survival of my family members who did survive for granted. That’s why playing music is—yes, it’s joyful, it’s a career, it’s work, it’s hard work—but it’s also a legacy, a deep responsibility in the best sense of that word.”
In the same spirit, Markham says, the pandemic has challenged artists to take creative chances. The Jewish Youth Orchestra adjusted to Zoom rehearsals and recorded “Eli, Eli” for the Jewish Federation’s Every Person Has a Name program. Mostly Kosher mixed live and prerecorded segments for their popular Hanukkah special at the Skirball, and they’re releasing their second album with more originals, for which “I wrote my very first klezmer piece.” Markham looks forward to going truly live again, but says it’s now clear adding streaming can reach people who don’t have access to live music. And that fits all her styles. “There’s a bridge from the street corner to the concert hall. To be able to share this music with more people is a revelation.”
To watch Janice Mautner Markham’s performance and the Soraya’s Violins of Hope Project documentary, visit the https://www.thesoraya.org/about/past-performances/2020-21//details/2020-voh.
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine and a not-so-contributing but lifelong fan of klezmer.