The Princeton Festival — with 24 events scheduled between Saturday, June 3, and Sunday, June 25 — is a swirl of opera, musical theater, dance, jazz, baroque music, film, a piano competition, and a Walt Disney concert all taking place in various Princeton venues.
Highlights include Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” the 1964 Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha,” the Philadelphia-based BalletX contemporary dance company, and numerous more choices made by the festival’s artistic director, Richard Tang Yuk.
It’s an abundance of activities compared to the festival’s debut in 2005, which featured four performances of a musical and a concert by the Concordia Chamber Players — the group that has been part of the festival since the beginning and will open it on June 3 at Miller Chapel at the Princeton Theological Seminary.
“I have a free hand in programming,” Concordia music director Michelle Djokic says. “But I like to mirror something that (Richard Tang Yuk) has planned. I look out especially for the scheduled opera. This season we’ll be playing Beethoven’s Op. 70 No. 1, the ‘Ghost’ piano trio, because of ‘Fidelio.’”
The program performed by cellist Djokic, pianist William Wolfram, violinist Emily Daggett-Smith, and violist Ayane Kozas will also feature contemporary Bucks County-born composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ string trio “Mozart En Route” and Richard Strauss’ Piano Quartet.
“I try to include contemporary music and lesser known works,” Djokic says. “This year all the Concordia pieces tell a story.”
Djokic has observed the gradual changes in the Princeton Festival since its creation. “I have seen it grow from one year to the next,” she says. “The offerings have become much richer in every way. But there’s a way in which the festival has not changed. In the audience, I see the same faces and the same supporters coming back year after year. They must be smiling inside as they see the festival unfolding.
“I feel under a lot of pressure to have Concordia put on programs on par with the other offerings of the festival. Richard could have anybody he wants for chamber music. Concordia feels privileged to be asked back repeatedly. People go out of the way to hear us. That means a lot. Princeton is our best audience. Many people who attend the Princeton Festival in June now go to Concordia during its subscription season the rest of the year.”
Although Djokic founded the ensemble in 1997 in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where her parents were living, and the group received some initial support from the New Hope Arts Council, she eventually moved to California for family reasons. “Managing Concordia from California is not difficult,” she says. “My responsibility is programming and hiring musicians. The board, based in Bucks County, handles development, writes letters and grant proposals, attracts sponsors, sells tickets at the concert, and handles the website. Concordia always rehearses in New York. We don’t have much rehearsal time, only three days. But we can work very hard without anybody coming out with a bruise.”
“I miss my colleagues in New York,” Djokic says. “There’s nothing like the concentration of institutions and conservatories there. That’s one of the reasons I make the journey six times a year for the Princeton Festival and Concordia.”
The youngest in a family with seven musician siblings — two violinists, two cellists, two pianists, and a violist, Michelle Djokic was born in Trenton in 1960. Her father, originally from Belgrade, Serbia, met his wife in Metz, France — hence the group’s name for the well-known public square in Paris. The couple came to the United States from France with five children in 1952 and spoke French at home.
Her father served in the Yugoslavian underground during World War II, was imprisoned in a concentration camp, and after being liberated served with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services in France. After moving to Trenton, he worked in a steel mill in nearby Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania.
Despite financial problems, Djokic’s parents considered music an essential part of family life, and Michelle’s father tended to buy instruments that cost $50 or less. She started cello at age 9, when her father brought home a half-size cello. “I was the only one who was the right size for it,” she says.
Accepted to New York’s Juilliard School at age 10, Djokic earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree there. “I supported myself at Juilliard by entering every competition that came my way,” she says.
Djokic’s mentors at Juilliard were Leonard Rose, called by the New York Times a “distinguished American cellist” and “one of the most important cello teachers of his time,” and the highly regarded cello instructor Channing Robbins. “Rose was present irregularly,” she says. “Robbins did all the dirty work. He taught us how to walk, and Rose taught us how to fly.”
Married to Stanford squash coach Mark Talbott, she has two children, daughter Maya, born in 1992, and son Nicholas, born in 1997. The family moved to California in 2004. At 12, Maya was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, and local medical services for her seemed totally inadequate. “It was a disaster,” Djokic says. “I checked out places where there was good treatment for diabetes, and the area around Menlo Park, California looked promising. “You imagine everything to try to fix a problem for your kid,” says Djokic — just like her own parents.
Concordia Chamber Players, Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary. Saturday, June 3, 7:30 p.m. $35 to $45.
Other Princeton Festival events include:
Fidelio, McCarter Theater, Sundays, June 18 and 25. $35 to $140.
Man of La Mancha, Lewis Center for the Arts’ Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Saturdays, June 10, 17, and 24; Sundays, June 11, 18, and 25; Thursdays, June 15 and 22; and Fridays June 16 and 23. $40 to $65.
BalletX, McCarter Theater, Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m. $15 to $45.
Peter Martin Trio, McCarter Theater, Saturday, June 17, 8 p.m. Jazz pianist Peter Martin, drummer Gregory Hutchinson, and bassist Reuben Rogers. $15 to $55.
Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra, Princeton Abbey, 75 Mapleton Road, Saturday, June 17, 4 p.m., and Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, Wednesday, June 21, 7:30 p.m. With the Princeton Festival Chorus at Miller Chapel, Saturday, June 24, 5 p.m. $10 to $35.
Princeton Festival Piano Competition Finals, Clark Music Center, Lawrenceville School, free preliminary rounds on Saturday, June 3, and Sunday June 4, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and the admission only final round, Sunday June 11, 3 p.m. $25.
For more on Princeton Festival events and full schedule: 609-759-0379 or www.princetonfestival.org.
Concordia Chamber Players’ 2017-’18 season runs from September 9 to April 8 and consists of four concerts and a winter gala. Included is the November premiere of the Dave Brubeck string quartet, “Homage a Bach.” www.concordiaplayers.org.