Chamberfest: Marc Djokic masters a mix of metal, marimba and his violin

Beverly Johnston and Marc Djokic.

Montreal-based violinist Marc Djokic is often in Ottawa in performance including at Chamberfest this week. He regularly joins with the percussionist Beverley Johnston in a duo that displays a range of styles and sounds. Included in their show this week is a Canadian premiere of a piece by Christos Hatzis called Dystopia along with pieces by Telemann and Arvo Part among others. In this interview with ARTSFILE, Djokic talks about his beginnings in a very musical family which includes his father and fellow violinist Philippe, his pianist mother Lynn Stodola and his sister Denise who plays cello. And he also speaks about his hopes for his music.

Q. Who are you, where are you from and how did you get here?

A. I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia and first learned violin from my father, Philippe Djokic. I moved to Montreal after studying at a number of schools in the states, under the tutelage of David Russell at Cleveland Institute of Music’s Young Artist Program, Donald Weilerstein at the New England Conservatory, and Jaime Laredo at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.

My favorite composers are Sibelius and Prokofiev for casual listening. I once collaborated with violinist Rachel Barton Pine where we shared our passion for metal bands, and actually performed string trio instrumental covers of classic hits from metal bands. I enjoy cooking and I’m a bit of a coffee snob, having built some of my own equipment. I’m an avid road biker. I’ve been with my lovely wife for almost seven years, married for two years. I love horror movies and really want to host This is My Music on CBC for Halloween.

Q. When did you pick up a violin? What attracted you to this instrument?

A. I first picked up the violin when I was six years old. I heard my dad practicing violin at home all the time and naturally wanted to copy what he was doing. He had recently taken prizes at the world’s top international violin competitions and was and still is internationally recognized. Hearing that level of playing at an early age really attracted me to the instrument.

Later at age nine when I started making pretty good progress, I started getting obsessed with some of the big works for violin.  I always remember when my dad gave me a recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto on cassette. After hearing it for the first time, I thought it was the most bad-ass piece of music to play on the violin. Listening to these great works really fueled my drive to study the instrument.

Q. Where do you find yourself today musically. What do you like to perform?

A. In terms of my training and education, I am a classically trained violinist. Musically, I’m interested in exploring and interpreting many styles of music on my instrument. I like to approach each piece with a sound that fits well with its composition; I try not to perform different repertoire with the same sound. To this end I’ll also often switch playing between my three violins – each one has a noticeably different character and sound.

As for performance, I always enjoy the high-octane experience that comes with violin concertos. It’s with chamber music though that you get to collaborate meaningfully with wonderful musicians and colleagues. These past few months I have been performing a lot of small ensemble repertoire with either saxophone, the theremin or the marimba. I find I perform just as much contemporary repertoire as classical.

Q. Where do you see yourself in five years, 10 years?

A. In five or 10 years, I hope to be performing as much as I am now. I am thankful every day I am physically able to play the violin. I’ve had great teachers who have shown me how to play the instrument properly so that I can endure hours of practice, rehearsals, and concerts without physically injury. This tends to be a focal point when I teach and give masterclasses.

I also hope to be touring a bit in Europe and Asia — I’m starting to plan my first tour in a few European cities which I’m really excited about.

Q. Tell me a bit about Beverley Johnston. Have you two worked together a lot?

A. Bev is definitely a hero in the percussion world. She is a gifted instrumentalist and musician but also an inspiration to composers to write music for percussion. We have been working together for a few years now since our Toronto debut and have even made some music videos on the noncerto channel on youtube/vimeo. We’re close friends and have a similar approach to rehearsing which is key!

Q. Can you explain the pairing of violin and marimba. Is there a lot of music written for this kind of quiet. Is it a natural marriage of sounds.

A. Our Bev & Marc Duo pairs many percussive instruments with violin, including the Marimba, Vibraphone, Musical Saw and Hand Drums played with mallets and instrument bows. These instruments have their unique qualities, but they are all extremely resonant. We are both strong players so we’re always heard loud and clear. We play many new works that are written especially for our instrument combo and we also play some transcriptions of classic works.

Q. One of the pieces you mention in particular is the Canadian premiere of a piece by Christos Hatzis. Can you talk about that work. What it’s like and what it’s like to play.

A. Dystopia, composed by Christos Hatzis, is a violin piece which depicts a struggle, mostly internal. It was originally written for Hilary Hahn, the only other violinist to have performed this piece. It is a great example of what I had mentioned before about being able to interpret different musical styles, with its Middle Eastern & North African inspired choice of modes. From a technical standpoint, I am plucking an open string rhythm and playing a melody at the same time with my left hand. Although not new, this technique is highly used in the composition of Dystopia and one of the reasons it is so challenging to play. It is a difficult piece to learn, but I find the struggle to execute the piece draws many parallels to the emotional whirlwinds of the piece.

I enjoyed working with Christos Hatzis while learning the piece, and am very happy to debut it for a Canadian audience at Chamberfest.

Bev & Marc: Strings and Things
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: Thursday Aug. 3 at 1 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.