By Jill Girgulis, March 8 2018 —
On any given day, violinist Diana Cohen may find herself busy with any number of her responsibilities as concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO), a position she’s held since 2012. As Cohen describes it, “I have a real musical role in the orchestra but I’m [also] kind of like a figurehead for the orchestra.”
Her primary and most time-consuming task involves selecting the ‘bowings’ for each piece of music that the orchestra performs throughout the CPO’s 10-month concert season. In simple terms, this refers to the various decisions Cohen makes that keep the string sections — violins, violas, cellos and basses — coordinated, which has a strong influence on the interpretation of the music.
“It’s actually not at all a visual thing — it has more to do with the phrasing of the music, what my wishes would be for the music and what I think the conductor’s wishes might be,” Cohen says. “[As concertmaster], I can make some quick judgements on the spot that change how we physically play our instruments.”
Cohen also sits on various committees, interacts with the CPO’s donors and board members and has input in concert programming, among other things. This week, she takes on yet another role — featured soloist. Cohen will deviate from her usual first-chair position to perform Saint-Saëns’s Violin Concerto No. 3 on Friday, March 9 for one of the CPO’s condensed Rush Hour concerts and again on Saturday, March 10, which will also include Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
“In a symphony, there’s often a violin solo so there’s already sort of a solo element built in to my job,” Cohen says. “As concertmaster, one already straddles that line between trying to blend really well with your colleagues but also being able to step out at a moment’s notice and be the solo voice.”
For Cohen, executing this type of performance requires a unique mindset.
“Like anything where you’re in the spotlight, it’s a certain type of honour and also responsibility and yeah, I would say pressure, in the best sense of the word,” she says. “It really raises one’s playing to another level to have to step out and do that in front of a group of colleagues that you respect as much as I do.”
Fortunately, some of that pressure may be alleviated by the return of Roberto Minczuk, previously the CPO’s music director for the past 10 years. He held the position for the longest amount of time in the orchestra’s history and is now this week’s guest conductor.
“I’m really looking forward to [Minczuk’s return]. I love Roberto, I think he’s a really wonderful musician,” she says. “I’ve built a rapport with him over five years so it’ll feel like coming home to a certain extent.”
A number of longstanding CPO musicians have retired in recent years and the turnover process is still ongoing. As concertmaster, Cohen is involved in all of the auditions that take place.
Recently, the CPO began to incorporate a chamber music component to the auditions, which asks candidates to perform sans-conductor with a smaller subset of musicians. According to Cohen, this process reveals invaluable information about the performers.
“For me it clarifies who is the right candidate almost immediately. I think that, given the right tools and a great teacher, a lot of people can prepare well for an audition,” she says. “We’re looking for somebody who has something sort of inherent inside them that loves to communicate with others through music.”
That being said, her enthusiasm and steadfast belief in the CPO remains prominently front and centre.
“I’m really liking the direction the orchestra’s going — it feels to me like people are listening more and more,” Cohen says. “We have more people who are interested in playing chamber music and I think we’re poised to go in a really good direction.”
In terms of the upcoming weekend, well, she’s looking forward to that too.
“I just love the highs and the lows of the [concerto] — the contrasts of the piece — it’s a really wonderful showcase for the violin. Some composers write more violinistic stuff than others and I would say Saint-Saëns is right in that category so it’s really fun to play,” Cohen says.
Tickets for this week’s and future concerts are available at calgaryphil.com. Tickets start at $25 for the March 9 performance and $20 for March 10.