Review: Djokic, Johnston present eclectic, entertaining mix of music for violin and percussion

Beverley Johnston and Mark Djokic. Photo: Shayne Gray

It’s been a big year for Marc Djokic. In the past 12 months, the Halifax-born, Montreal-based violinist won the $125,000 Prix Goyer career development grant, was named concertmaster of the McGill Chamber Orchestra and recorded his debut album, to be released this fall on the ATMA label.

Djokic is performing in several concerts at this year’s Music and Beyond. On Friday evening, he appeared with his frequent collaborator, Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston. The recital was originally booked for a smaller venue, but the Borodin Quartet’s cancellations meant Djokic and Johnston were bumped to the festival main stage at Dominion Chalmers. The duo presented an eclectic program of transcriptions and original compositions.

Djokic was playing his sweet-toned, 20th-century Fagnola fiddle rather than his more assertive Guarnerius, and the balance with Johnston’s marimba wasn’t always ideal. This was especially true in the opening piece, a brilliant Piazzolla tango, where Djokic’s romantic lyricism was at times overpowered by the marimba’s resonant ping. Johnston switched to vibraphone for a graceful transcription of a Telemann sonata, trading delicately ornamented riffs with Djokic.

Johnston’s significant other is the composer Christos Hatzis, who wrote the three-movement Vignettes for her and Djokic last year. The work is textural and enigmatic, with complex rhythmic undercurrents swirling beneath the surface. Memories of the Danforth quotes snippets of Greek tunes without sounding folksy, while Night Sky nods at the lunar impressionism of Debussy.

Djokic and Johnston showed off their versatility in solo works. American composer and marimbist Julie Spencer wrote Everybody Talk about Freedom for Johnston, who has to sing and recite text while playing. It’s different and hugely entertaining. Johnston also recites a poem in Frederic Rzewski’s To the Earth, composed for four flower pots tuned to specific pitches. Under Johnston’s skilled mallets, these humble objects took on the exotic, hypnotic colours of Indonesian gamelan.

Djokic performed a furious Chaconne by Montreal composer, conductor and recorder player Matthias Maute, as well as a solo by Ana Sokolovic inspired by a Serbian folk dance. The latter is thickly studded with virtuoso effects, but Djokic has a relaxed, grounded technique that never calls attention to itself.

Julian Armour joined the duo for a sincere, if slightly undisciplined, performance of A Night at Heaven’s Gate, Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick’s Klezmer Rhapsody for marimba, violin and cello.    

Djokic and Johnston ended with Mr. Coffee, the percolating, jittery first movement from David P. Jones’ Legal Highs.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.