By Jill Girgulis
Interview completed in January 2022
Published in June 2022
One could say that baroque violinist Majka Demcak got an early start with the historical repertoire — even if she didn’t fully realize it at the time!
“I started playing Bach at a really young age,” Demcak explained, having first tackled the composer at only 10 or so years old, when Bach’s work is more commonly approached in high school or university. “I was learning it at such a young age…I remember just feeling like I didn’t understand anything that I was playing.”
Born and raised in Surrey, British Columbia, Demcak has Slovak roots, and has been to Slovakia many times to visit extended family.
“I grew up with a strong connection to folk music. I must have heard violin somewhere, and my parents told me that I asked them to start playing violin, so they found me a teacher.”
Demcak proceeded to study modern violin for several years, but it was through YouTube that she became better acquainted with historical performance.
“I started finding videos of modern musicians playing in a historically informed style on their modern instruments,” says Demcak, citing a specific Gidon Kremer performance as being particularly transformative. “He played without vibrato, he played with such a pure, clean tone, he used the bow completely differently than I was expecting, and so I just imitated what he was doing, and suddenly, I started understanding the phrasing.”
Venturing into post-secondary studies, Demcak attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in music focusing on modern violin. She became aware of the baroque orchestra mentorship program in her second year of studies. “I went to go watch the teachers perform, and I really loved it. It was so different to music that I had heard before.” She waited another year to officially join the program, and when she did, was presented with the necessary equipment to get started — “They give you a baroque violin, a baroque bow, and just say ‘go’!”
As Demcak explains, “I had amazing teachers in that program, but I was also discovering this instrument kind of by myself, which was very exciting for me because I was finding my own way through it.”
Following the completion of her modern music degree, Demcak continued her baroque studies for two more years, and received a scholarship from Early Music Vancouver to take private lessons. “That really solidified for me that I love doing this, and that that’s the direction I want to go.”
She then relocated to New York for a master’s degree at the Juilliard School, graduating in the spring of 2021. It was here that she formed a classical quartet with three of her peers.
“I went to an Eybler Quartet concert with one of my classmates, Natalie Kress,” Demcak recalls, referring to the Canadian classical historical string quartet. “They were playing music and finding repertoire that’s not usually played. It inspired us so much that we just looked at each other and said, ‘I wanna do this’.”
Demcak and Kress started considering recruits, inviting two few of their fellow classmates to join them, Aniela Eddy and Cullen Coty-O'Neil, and thus, Quartet Salonnières was born.
All seemed to be falling into place, save for one detail — nobody played viola! “It was three violinists and a cellist,” Demcak laughs. “To get around, we all decided that we’d rotate and all play viola — which was one of the best things I’ve ever done. To sit in three different positions in a string quartet, I learned so much about the role of each part in music.”
When asked what position she is most partial to in a quartet, Demcak reveals, “I don’t have a preference, I think it’s just by piece.” She loves playing second violin in Mozart quartets, viola in Haydn quartets, and first violin in Boccherini quartets. “I think I would love any spot. I think the role of each player is so important and significant, and when you understand what the part means in the music, and how you carry someone else, or how you join this part, it keeps your brain so active, and it makes you all feel united.”
Graduating in the midst of a global pandemic necessitated that Demcak and her colleagues gain familiarity with the art of recording themselves, which is a practice she was admittedly previously afraid of, but has since come around on.
“I think that it really helped me as a musician and my colleagues working together to really be observing what we’re doing.”
Quartet Salonnières actually recorded their first album last year, and they are in the process of editing at time of this interview.“The way we recorded it was in a studio, so it’s a very different feeling than a live recording — I really appreciate an audience!” Demcak says. The album will feature once quartet apiece from composers Boccherini, Mozart, and Haydn.
“We wanted to record a little bit more well-known repertoire in the modern quartet world, with a historical approach to it,” she explains. “We have gut strings, our tuning is different, and the way that we approach certain markings on the page are a little bit different than how you would approach it as a modern player — less vibrato, the ornaments are a little bit different.”
Juilliard proved seismic for Demcak beyond just the inception of Quartet Salonnières — it was during her master’s degree that Demcak first crossed paths with Mount Parnassus founder Catalina Guevara Klein, a fellow Juilliard student at the time.
“Catalina approached our quartet after we formed, and told us about her goals and her dreams, and we wanted to be part of it,” Demcak enthuses. “It sounded amazing, and something that I love about the historical music community is that everybody is very encouraging, and it does feel like a community. There’s not as many musicians — although there are more now — but I think that, because we really love what we’re doing, we’re very eager to be part of something together, and help each other out.”
She adds, “So much of this music is chamber music, so you are playing with so many different people, and why not start a community like that?”
Majka Demcak and harpsichordist Elliot Figg in a recording session at the National Music Centre in Calgary
Majka Demcak is currently based in Vancouver, BC. She can be found performing with her ensemble, Gallo Chamber Players, in the baroque music concert series at St Augustine's church, Vancouver. She regularly appears in concert with Pacific Baroque Orchestra and is guest concertmaster with the Kamloops Symphony Orchestra Baroque Ensemble.