Chamber Music for All

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 18, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In some classical music circles, the dark cloud of despair hangs low as pessimists read doom into sparse attendance and aging audiences. However, quality chamber music concerts may be wiping out that cloud. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, founded in 1969, now sponsors more activities than ever before and entices concertgoers to compete for tickets. Bargemusic, making its home since 1977 on a formerly seagoing vessel moored in New York’s East River, plays to capacity crowds.

The artists who appear at these high-profile venues are part of a musical community that surfaces, as well, at the proliferating chamber music events outside of New York. Members of the chamber music-performing community know each other, marry each other, and call on each other to flesh out performances from La Jolla, California, to Marlboro, Vermont; from Portland, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Their numbers are relatively large; Bargemusic alone estimates that about 100 performers play on their floating stainless steel vessel.

The New Hope-based Concordia Chamber Players is an area example of the loose federations of performers drawn from a pool of high-caliber musicians ready to trek cross-country and help chamber music flourish. After a tentative start in 1997, when it was dependent on the New Hope Arts Commission, Concordia is now moving steadfastly forward under the leadership of its artistic director and founder, cellist Michelle Djokic. It formed an independent board in spring 1999.

For the 2000-2001 season Concordia has mounted a three-concert series, of which the last event takes place at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 22 in the Stephen Buck Theater at New Hope-Solebury High School on West Bridge Street (Route 179) in New Hope. The program includes the relatively-unknown Suite for Unaccompanied Cello by Gaspar Cassado, Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat,” and Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet in C Minor. Performers include William Wolfram, piano; Carmit Zori, piano; Robert Rinehart, viola, Djokic, cello, and David Krakauer, clarinet.

Cassado, composer of the piece in which cellist Djokic is the sole performer, was born in Barcelona in 1897 and studied with his fellow Catalan, the legendary Pablo Casals. Cassado bases the second movement of his piece on the sardana, a dance of Barcelona, capital of Spain’s often dissident Catalan region. Djokic describes the piece as “very demanding technically. Cassado was a cellist,” she says “and he fully explored what’s there. He includes double stops, high positions, and sustained fifths in thumb position, while you play a counterpoint melody above them. The counterpoint makes it similar to the Bach suites. Cassado captures the spirit of his homeland, Spain, using every device possible-pizzicato, harmonics, and rhythms. You can hear a Spanish woman singing in the last movement.”

Interviewed by telephone from her home in New Haven, Connecticut, Djokic (pronounced Jokich) talks about what led her to create Concordia. In part, it was enthusiasm for playing with the commonwealth of active top-notch chamber music practitioners; in part, zeal for promoting chamber music; and, in part, affection for the Lambertville-New Hope region where she grew up.

“I thought it was an opportunity to bring my colleagues with whom I’ve played in wonderful settings to my home,” says the Trenton-born artist. “The area is so rich in cultural arts. So many great artists pass through. But music at the level of the Concordia Chamber Players was missing.” Djokic, whose mother is French, named the group after that great crossroads in Paris, the Place de la Concorde.

Youngest of seven children, all of whom are musicians, Djokic, 40, is the child of a father from Belgrade, Serbia and a mother from Metz, France. Her eldest sibling, brother Alex, is 15 years her senior. Her parents met after World War II, when her father a Yugoslav officer liberated by the Allies, was put in charge of American troops in Metz. He lived in a military barracks across from the home of his future wife, which was also the site of the officers’ club. Father Djokic declined to return to Yugoslavia. “My father was in the Mihailovic underground,” Djokic says. “He would have been imprisoned immediately if went back to Tito’s Yugoslovia. He had no choice, but to stay in France.”

Fluent in seven languages father Djokic worked as a cultural attache for NATO, and for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which became the CIA. When he came to the United States in 1952 with his wife and five children, he had no job. “He expected a big career because of his skills and experience,” says daughter Michelle. “But he had no idea about the United States’ employment scene with its connections and hustle. He ended up working for US Steel for the next 40 years in the slab yard doing heavy labor.” Now retired, he and his wife preside over a family with 13 grandchildren.

The family spoke French at home, says Michelle, and the children still speak French with each other. “It was a very European family,” Djokic says. “Music was an important part of our upbringing. My father had shift jobs, but took all seven of us to concerts, and to music lessons on Saturday.” The seven siblings, four boys and three girls, include two violinists, two cellists, two pianists, and a violist. Neither parent played an instrument. “My father grew up on a farm,” Djokic says. “It was difficult to go to town. My grandmother walked to town and carried home packages. She always asked the neighbors what they wanted, and my father always asked her to bring back a violin. When he went to the naval academy in Dubrovnik he took violin lessons. The war started soon after he finished, and he never played. But he knows what he’s hearing. My mom does too.”

Djokic started on the converted player piano that her father could afford to buy. Later he bought a half size cello from a colleague at the steel mill. “He bought whatever costed $50 or less,” Djokic says. “I was nine at the time. We were living in half a house where all the boys slept in one room, and all the girls in another. I had seen my brother Pierre, who was three years older, practicing cello so I knew about the instrument.”

Pierre is now Associate Principal Cellist at the Montreal Symphony. Brother Philippe, 51, a violinist, is artist in residence at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “We were the three who went to Juilliard,” Djokic says.

She lives in New Haven with her husband Mark Talbott, a squash professional, who coaches at Yale. “We’re very focused in our individual pursuits,” she says, “and we respect each other’s space. But we know that we need each other’s support to do what we’re doing.” The couple has a daughter Maya, 9, and a son Nicolas, 7. Talbott’s grandmother, Katharine Houk Talbott, was a co-founder of Westminster Choir College. A Westminster spokesman says that she “combined the finer qualities of Joan of Arc and Auntie Mame.”

Accepted to Juilliard’s pre-college division at age 10, Djokic attended the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. She skipped a year in high school and entered Juilliard as a freshman at 16. As an economy measure, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously. “I supported myself at Juilliard by entering every competition that came my way,” she says. “Now prizes are in the range of $15,000 to $30,000. Then, first prize was $2,000 or $3,000. I worked my tail off.” Still, despite scholarships and earnings, she owed $10,000 in loans when she collected her two degrees in 1981 shortly before turning 21.

Her mentors at Juilliard were Leonard Rose and his assistant, Channing Robbins. “I have never sat in front of a cellist that could make Rose’s sound or play with his musical integrity,” Djokic says. “Rose had a big career, and he was not necessarily there every week. Channing taught us how to walk and Rose taught us how to fly.”

Currently Djokic plays with Speculum Musicae, the New York-based contemporary music ensemble. “I’m thrilled by contemporary music,” she says, “and I am so glad that people are embracing it.” For an advocate of new music, Djokic’s Concordia programming shows considerable restraint. Of the 29 pieces the group has performed since its inception only a small minority were by composers who lived into the second half of the 20th century.

In her “informances,” lecture-demonstrations in schools during the week preceding the concerts, Djokic says that 90 percent of what she plays is contemporary. “Kids’ imaginations are triggered more by contemporary music than the classics,” she says. “Finally, we’re washing out of people’s brains the conception that contemporary music is difficult.”

Through the schools Djokic tries to approximate the wealth of music to which she was exposed as a child. “Concordia’s outreach made us unique from the very first day.,” she says. “There has never been any concert without a program in schools in advance. I want kids in the area to grow up thinking that of course, chamber music is part of their life, and, of course, concerts are free for kids, and, of course, the community supports this sort of thing.” Not only are school children admitted to Concordia concerts gratis; in addition, they are permitted to bring an adult guest at no cost. The good will the ensemble generates in the school is a mirror of the good will participating chamber music players have offered to Concordia.

The fledgling ensemble has benefited from the generosity of its players. Concordia’s spring 1997 budget came to $2,400, an artificially low figure. Concordia’s present budget of $20,000, says Djokic, is extremely modest. “Artists’ fees have only gone up $100 since we started four years ago, but it gets artists closer to what they normally earn.”

“The majority of our musicians live in New York and rehearse there,” Djokic says. “New Hope is only an hour and a half away. No extensive travel is required. That keeps costs low; we’re not flying in anybody from California. In chamber music circles people tend to support each other. New chamber groups bring a new awareness of chamber music. They embellish what’s already there, rather than competing. The more this kind of things takes place, the better off we all are.”

— Elaine Strauss

Concordia Chamber Players, New Hope-Solebury High School, 180 West Bridge Street, New Hope, 215-297-5972. Michelle Djokic presents a concert featuring guest pianist William Wolfam, with ensemble members violinist Carmit Zori, violist Robert Rinehart, and clarinetist David Krakauer. $20; children with an adult free. 3 p.m.
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