Maja Cus Vukovic
July 7, 1921 - April 19, 2017
Violinist Maja Vukovic performed with the Lyric Opera Orchestra for 41 years and the Grant Park Symphony for 36. In March, I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with Maja and her cousin Judy Fus in Maja’s beautiful apartment. Although she was ill, Maja was full of her characteristic spirit and told stories of her life and her years playing with Lyric. Sadly, she passed away one month later at the age of 95.
Maya was born in Dubrava, Croatia. “There was always music in my house,” she said. When she was a small child she loved to sneak out of bed and listen behind the door to her brother playing the violin, piano and tambouritza, a Croatian long-necked lute. She sang in her church choir and told me with a smile, “music put a spark in my heart.”
Maya spoke fondly of her violin teacher Vaclav Huml with whom she studied for seven years at the Music Academy in Zagreb. Huml’s teacher was the famed Czech pedagogue Otakar Ševčík. Maja was proud of her pedagogical heritage and shared with me a fascinating map of violin playing schools that followed a line from Huml back through Prague, Paris and Rome to 1653. The Academy was one of the finest music schools in Europe at the time.
In 1941 Maja married Boris Vukovic. He died in 1944 as the Germans were leaving and the Russians were arriving. After she was widowed she went back to school to continue her studies with Huml and eventually went on to study at the Paris Conservatory.
Maja arrived in Chicago in 1956 with a letter of recommendation from her teacher to Fritz Reiner. In 1960 she began playing with the Lyric Opera Orchestra and joined the Grant Park Orchestra in 1962. She also served as first violinist in the Chapel Hill, NC Orchestra and as assistant concertmaster of the Orlando, FL Orchestra for many years.
I spoke with Ludmilla Lazar, former head of Roosevelt University’s Piano Department who met Maja in 1960. “I remember hearing Maja play for the first time, Mendelsson’s Violin Concerto. She played with a beautiful, elegant sound. That was who she was.” She also performed with Chicago cellist and composer Blythe Owen and with Grant Park’s former concertmaster Arthur Tabachnick and former principal cellist, Shirley Tabachnick. They would gather to read chamber music two or three times a week.
“Maja was one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known, inside and out,” said violinist Florentina Raminceanu. “She was an inspiration and mentor to many young artists and was always willing to help a person in need.” Florentina and Ludmilla both told stories of Maja’s remarkable generosity. “I had a student come to study at Roosevelt from Japan,” said Ludmilla. “The scholarship was not big and Maja invited her to live with her while she was studying.”
This kind of generosity was not unusual for Maja. Throughout her life, she taught and mentored many young artists from all over Europe and the Chicago area. Many came to live with her for a time and were treated as though they were members of her family.
She also taught her niece, Lydija Rankovic who later became Professor of Violin at the Belgrade Conservatory. One of Lydija’s rising stars is now playing a Villaume violin donated by Maja. For several years, Maja sponsored the 1st prize of the Vaclav Huml International Violin Competition held annually in Zagreb. At age 90 she flew to Zagreb to hear the final round and was very proud of the winners.
At Lyric, Maja came to work every day elegantly dressed and without a hair out of place. After her retirement in 2001, she remained active. She continued to teach, attend concerts and to prepare delicious meals for her guests. Maja will be remembered by friends and colleagues for her spirit, friendship, generosity, sense of humor, and her love of life and music. These are her words:
“It was not always easy but, in my heart, I loved and respected what I was doing. It made me treasure what God gave me. We are fortunate that we are the recipient of something that is so sacred and beautiful.