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Concordia Chamber Players

Artistic Director Michelle Djokic Brings Musicians Together in Historic Settings

By Lori Goldstein

Exactly who are the Concordia Chamber Players? If you scan the past seasons on the Concordia website, you’ll find an ever-changing roster of world-class musicians. The one constant is Michelle Djokic, the founder, artistic director, and cellist always-in-residence for the past 25 years.

“I almost feel like I’m a puppeteer, manipulating things from up above but also one of the puppets down below,” says Djokic. “I see the whole experience as so many different elements involved: it’s not just simply the music, not just the composers.” And not just all the musicians whom she invites to share in the retreat-like environment of New Hope, Pennsylvania.

How the burgeoning cultural mecca came to be the Concordia Chamber Players’ home is a story that stretches back to Djokic’s childhood. In the 1960s, when her family was living in Trenton, her father would take her to visit New Hope. As they passed by the studio of esteemed woodworker George Nakashima, Djokic’s father would say, “This is really important work.” He recognized the significance of the artist long before people knew who Nakashima was. “Then we’d look at all the artists’ work in town,” says Djokic. “I always had a sense that there was something uniquely special, a safe harbor for artists in that region.”

When Djokic’s parents moved to New Hope 30 years ago, she befriended members of the community. During a lunch with her friends, she expressed a desire to bring her colleagues from New York to New Hope to make chamber music. She knew her musician friends would enjoy a respite from the city, and it would be a gift to the New Hope community to hear their music. “It’s as close to playing in Europe as I could find in this country,” she says.

From left are Kristin Lee, Jesse Mills, Peter Ferry, Michelle Djokic, and Mark Holloway at Trinity Church in 2015.

As artistic director, Djokic is the person who researches and selects the pieces for each concert several years in advance. “I love getting lost in libraries,” she says. “It’s one thing to do the research online, but I love sitting in the stacks, seeing what’s there.”

It’s her favorite way to “kill an afternoon,” says Djokic. When she lived in New Haven, Connecticut, the Yale music library was her resource. Now that she lives in Monterey, California, she relies on Stanford’s library. Whenever she’s in Manhattan, she’ll head to Columbia University.

Like an archaeologist, Djokic mines the music literature for hidden gems, pieces that have been rarely performed. “I’m always interested in new music, introducing new language into the community’s experience,” she says.

Don’t expect to hear a standard work from the classical music repertoire, such as Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 1, at a Concordia concert. Do come if you want to listen to a quintet arrangement of his Kreutzer Sonata, a performance which Michelle discovered on a YouTube video from Germany. (It’s programmed for the Cello2Cello concert this season.)

Classical music concertgoers are notorious for their resistance to new or unfamiliar music. However, Concordia’s loyal audiences have come to expect this unique type of programming. And Djokic always has a sense of satisfaction when one of her “discoveries’’ is replicated by another chamber music ensemble or series.

Once Djokic has chosen the pieces for each concert, it’s her responsibility to secure the musicians. She’ll begin this endeavor a year in advance, keeping in mind that many artists are well-booked for other engagements, as she is — Djokic is a tenured member of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, as well as founder and artistic director of Sandbox, a performing arts series in Monterey, and Musikiwest, a music education outreach program.

Andy Akiho, a steel pannist and composer, had his Grammy-nominated “Seven Pillars” performed by the Brooklyn-based ensemble Sandbox Percussion at a Concordia Chamber Players concert this past spring. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in composition at Princeton University. 

It’s not simply a matter of hiring, it’s careful thinking about which musicians will complement each other. This season features five new artists. Djokic herself has come to know many of the musicians at other festivals or concerts in which she has performed, but she is also open to recommendations from her itinerant colleagues. Not surprisingly, she’ll find that new friendships “sprout” during the time the musicians spend in New Hope, and those friendships continue long after.

“A family of musicians never stops growing,” says Djokic. “The roots just get deeper and deeper, and the tree branches reach out further. I have people back in as much as I possibly can.”  Concomitantly, members of the Concordia audience will follow the artists they’ve been introduced to and seek out their performances in other venues.

The musicians, who may know each other or are meeting for the first time, only have at most three rehearsals for what is quite often difficult music.

“The newness of everybody coming together for just that one event is part of what people sense in the audience,” says Djokic. “Nobody is not on the edge of their seats. Nobody can take a break from watching their colleagues because we still don’t know each other that well. We have to be absolutely clocked into each other. You can’t get that kind of spontaneity from a seasoned quartet that has performed together for years.”

The Concordia Chamber Players perform at three distinctive venues. The Chamberfest 2022 will occur in the historic barn at Glen Oaks Farm in Solebury, Pennsylvania, owned by board member Douglas Kale and his wife Wendy. Built in 1764, the barn has a bottom floor (where animals were once housed) that “goes so deep it’s like a sounding board,” says Djokic.

The musicians perform on the second floor, and the ceiling is another two stories up. With an all-stone back wall and an all-wood interior, “you have this wonderful backdrop for throwing the sound out into the room,” says Djokic. “This wooden warmth is not at all soundproof to the outside. We never get rained on, but the sound of the crickets or the wind blowing becomes one with the experience of hearing the music …

I relish playing with the crickets. At unexpected moments in the music, they always seem to fit right in.”

Every year Concordia’s gala and Winterfest concert are held at Cradle Valley Farm in New Hope, owned by Candace Jones, president of the board, and her husband, Stephen Phillips. The musicians also conduct rehearsals at Cradle Valley. Last year the winter events had to be canceled due to COVID-19. The concert was rescheduled in spring, when it was held partly outdoors. Plans for the upcoming winter are still up for discussion due to the changing status of the pandemic.

The third venue is Trinity Church in Solebury, where the “acoustics and aesthetics come together in such a beautiful way … I find it’s an environment that’s very welcoming for any belief,” says Djokic. The interior has “beautiful wood and just the right amount of windows,” she adds.

Each Concordia performance has a free, open rehearsal that occurs the day before each concert. It’s fascinating to hear the musicians target sections of a piece to polish, as well as their dialogue as they reach consensus on interpretations. They are always receptive to questions from the audience.

When I ask Djokic about the Concordia board, her eyes light up. “The board is unique in that it has four amazing chefs,” she says. “This is really important because of all the receptions at their concerts and at the gala. They are like-minded people that love building community, love enjoying music, trust my programming, trust the direction I want to take the organization, and then have this incredible pleasure of crafting a meal around my programming. They would serve up such an incredible array of food during intermission that we could never get anybody back” for the second half of the program. The board also generously offers their homes for the musicians to stay in during the time when they rehearse and prepare a concert.

As she is every year, Djokic is excited about the programming for the 2022-2023 season — which clearly shows she’s a champion of the under-represented. Last spring, she offered a concert of four pieces written by female contemporary composers. Chamberfest 2022 highlights female composers living in the 17th century. Djokic has cleverly titled it Il Fattore XX (The Female Factor).

“I never really explored composers of the Baroque era. Lo and behold, there is this whole element of what some people call ‘behind the convent walls,’” she says. Of course, women were composing in convents … but it was when they left the convent that music expanded into more of a polyphony.… There was a sense of hearing it and allowance for it in Italy.”

Djokic mentions composers Barbara Strozzi, Isabella Leonarda, and Francesca Caccini, who was the first female to write an opera.

“It was quite outrageous that these women are not known, even amongst my Baroque colleagues,” says Djokic. “It says a lot about our culture that we still have overlooked women’s roles for centuries, so I’m very excited about that [concert].”

Michelle has assembled a wonderful team including the renowned Baroque violinists Edwin Huizinga and Manami Mizumoto, harpsichordist Elliot Figg, and soprano Chelsea Helm to help her make the best concert selections.

Djokic believes it is the artist’s responsibility to utilize the music of the past to help enlighten people to the realities of today’s world. The Degenerates concert alludes to the label Adolf Hitler used to condemn artists due to their race or religion. She chose works by Mendelssohn and Zemlinsky, both of whom concealed their Jewish heritage by practicing Lutheranism and Protestantism respectively. Florence Price, a Black composer writing in the first half of the 20th century, would have also been labeled a “degenerate.” Ironically, her symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1933, the same year Hitler was named chancellor of Germany.

Recognizing that racism and antisemitism are on the rise today, Djokic says, “I don’t want to be political in my programming… [but] I do feel we have a story to tell as artists and musicians. It is relevant in our music; it is relevant in our roles. I like to put that out there not as a challenge, but as an invitation to people as they listen to the music.”

Similarly, she has programmed the Shostakovich Piano Quintet because “it captures so many moments in Russian culture, representing not only his being celebrated as a Russian composer, but also being allowed to work,” says Djokic. “To the Russian people he was seen as a sign of resistance … [he was] trying to find a way to express what he felt through his music while still being allowed to do it. Pretty sneaky, but pretty great. The hidden story in his quintet is one which speaks to what is happening in Ukraine right now — and not just Ukraine, but so many cultures around the world where people are intimidated and cannot express themselves at all.”

Again, Djokic stresses “the need for artists to take responsibility for inspiring, for telling stories, capturing moments, and building community.”

Shostakovich shares billing with contemporary Black composer Carlos Simon, whose music is infused with gospel and jazz, important components of the African American experience. (Djokic communicated with Simon frequently after the killing of George Floyd.)  And it was curiosity about the Esselen Native American tribe — which once inhabited the area of California where Djokic now lives — that led her to the music of Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate.

“I found it very difficult to find Native American classical composers that I can relate to, [whose music] I feel like I can own and present with some integrity,” says Djokic. “Jerod is a genius in the way he translates Native American culture into our string quartet language so that you really do hear the voice of his people coming through this music.”

Milestones don’t seem to matter to Djokic. When I first interviewed her in the spring, I asked what her goals were for the next quarter century. She told me she couldn’t even think about that because, like many artistic directors, she was recovering from pandemic-survival mode. When I spoke to her again for this article, I asked her to reflect on Concordia’s progress in the past 25 years. Djokic told me, “I’m too busy looking forward.”

View the 2022-23 concert season and purchase tickets at concordiaplayers.org.

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