Jan: Let me start with some biographical questions, Steve. How old are you?
Steve: I just turned 42.
Jan: So when did you first start playing the violin?
Steve: I was 8 years old. I was born in December of '66, so the whole FIDDLER ON THE ROOF thing was really big then. When the movie came out, my parents bought the record, & they played it a lot, & I kept asking them to play it over & over again. I wanted to play because of that.
Jan: So how did you pick the name “Stempenyu” for your CD? When did you start to use that name?
Steve: “Stempenyu's Dream” is our performance. As it explains in the liner notes of our CD, Stempenyu was a famous Jewish violinist from Berdichev, Ukraine. He was a major figure who played for Jewish weddings in the 19th Century.
Jan: When did you first hear his name?
Steve: I think 10 years ago; whenever I first read Sholem Aleichem’s story STEMPENYU: A JEWISH ROMANCE. I read the story, & it was very interesting. I was working hard at studying traditional Jewish violin playing, teaching at all these festivals for years, & all those things came up in the research. Stempenyu composed & played his own pieces.
Jan: So now that we've established that Jerry Bock’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF music (performed by Isaac Stern on the movie soundtrack) was your most primitive formative influence, but who else influenced you when you started studying Klezmer? Who did you look to as you were developing your own style?
Steve: I studied classically. I didn't know about Klezmer music when I was a kid in the '70s, even though it was starting to unfold. I got two degrees at the Cleveland Institute of Music, & in between the degrees (in the summer of 1989), I went to an opera festival in Graz, Austria, where I played in the orchestra.
Now, I had already played a lot of Yiddish songs & Israeli songs for fun, & I really liked that a lot, but I‘d never considered it to be a career. But in Graz, I ended up walking with some colleagues of mine, & we heard some accordion music in the streets. As we got closer, I heard that the guy was playing a Jewish tune on his accordion, & I was blown away that he'd be playing a Jewish tune.
I thought, “What's this guy doing playing this tune on an accordion?” It turned out that he was an American living in Graz for 5 years, his name was Joshua Horowitz, & he was a composer. So Joshua & I & my other colleague, we ended up playing Jewish music all summer on the streets in Graz (except when we were doing concerts with this opera orchestra at the festival).
Jan: How did the Austrians feel about that?
Steve: They loved it! They loved all the music we played, because we had so much excitement & energy. We didn't know what we were doing exactly, but Joshua was playing all these tunes that I knew: some Yiddish and some Israeli. He was just starting to collect Yiddish songs & Klezmer tunes. But that was the big start for me: summer of '89.
Afterwards I came back to Cleveland to start my Master's degree, & I kept saying: “I want to play Klezmer. I want to play Klezmer.” So this one guy said, "Call Walter Mahovlich. He's starting this folk group.” And things just took off from there. Walt had all these recordings & sheet music: East European folk & gypsy music. I'm still playing with Walt today, & with Joshua Horowitz.
I started going to KlezKamp in New York regularly, & I learned quite a bit there from Alicia Svigals. It was a big eye-opener to hear what this music was really about. After a couple of years, I wanted to teach this music, & then I was teaching there (at KlezKamp) in '95, & now I teach regularly in the summer at
Jan: When you move beyond “the standards,” so to speak, what are the biggest challenges? Who is your audience when you write “new” Klezmer music?
Steve: I can use the traditional formulas, but the biggest challenge is to make something that’s slightly different but which also sounds traditional & good. I've written so much stuff that's just terrible & really banal, but I've also written stuff that's really special, that's really unique.
Jan: And it's not just for the old-timers?
Steve: No, not at all. I guess I haven't really focused on the audience. I have this interest in the music, & I was writing these pieces on inspiration, but certainly I want to share my music with everybody. I've gone into nursing homes where I've played some of these pieces, & people are blown away—especially if I give a performance where it's a real experience, & that's what a lot of it is. But one of my colleagues, a year or two ago, he told me that he was walking in the New York subway & he heard a violinist, a young girl, playing one of my tunes, like the Jewish HEY JUDE.
I teach all these tunes at KlezKanada & at other festivals. I teach all ages. I taught the tunes to a 14 or 15-year-old girl living in Canada (I think in Nova Scotia). Her mother wrote to me: "Charlotte just played your tune, & here's the recording of it." It made me cry. It was really special that a kid would play these tunes so well.
Jan: So what is it that you're opening up in people, something they may not have known was missing in their lives before they heard your music?
Steve: Well, there's this long-lost tradition of all these very special, serious violin pieces, & the performer created this transformational experience: a
Jewish spiritual experience. I've studied these very old recordings, & you can hear where some of the players (even on these very scratchy 78 rpm recordings) did that; they really drew you in. So I think with these compositions, I intend to do that, & I've been able to do that.
I’m not religiously observant these days (I used to be more so when I was younger), but some of it is still inside me, & I need to express it. I'm able to do that with the music—to share my ethnicity, my ancestry, my pride in the old Yiddish culture. It's nice to continue it.
Jan: When I read these words in Sholem Aleichem’s story STEMPENYU, I knew that I had
special: "Any heart, especially a Jewish heart is a fiddle; you squeeze the strings & you draw forth all kinds of songs, a force, a scream from the depths of the heart & soul."
Steve: I use that quote all the time!
© Jan Lisa Huttner (February 15, 2009)
This chat is based on a December 31, 2008 phone call to Steve in Cleveland.
Huge thanks to Dalia Hoffman for helping me prep this chat for posting.
To learn more about Steve, visit his website: