Diana Cohen: Leading Calgary’s Philharmonic Harmony

Appointed the concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012, violinist Diana Cohen hails originally from Cleveland but feels like a Calgarian after over ten years in the city. On a typical day during the CPO season, Cohen drops her three-year-old daughter off at preschool, heads to work for rehearsal, then returns home for a few more hours of practice. On days without rehearsals, she spends the day learning music for upcoming performances and catching up on behind-the-scenes work like studying scores, listening to recordings, and preparing bowings for the orchestra’s next concerts. “Life always feels a bit like a juggling act,” she says. “It never feels like there’s enough time for everything, but I try to mix it up and devote time to the things that are either the most urgent or need the most long-term preparation.”

Diana Cohen: Leading Calgary's Philharmonic Harmony
Photo by Trudie Lee

Her pre-concert ritual looks a little different from how it did before. “I used to rest and take a nap before concerts, and now I really try to save the mid-to-late afternoon for time with my daughter, especially if I have a concert. I’m getting less rest in, but at least more fun time with my family.” The Cohen family is a powerhouse of professional musicians across many generations: her father, brother, and husband are all professional musicians. It’s no surprise that Cohen’s daughter attends many of the CPO’s concerts.

Cohen decided to audition for the concertmaster role in Calgary purely because her brother Alexander Cohen, Principal Timpanist of the CPO, encouraged her to take the rare opportunity for them to play in the same orchestra. “We can communicate so much across the stage without saying a word, and we do all the time, and it’s super fun,” she laughs. Her two music festivals, the well-established ChamberFest Cleveland and the Calgary-based ChamberFest West, which has just finished its second successful season, regularly feature her family members.

Cohen describes her role as a concertmaster as being a “conduit between the conductor and the musicians.” The responsibilities of the concertmaster include leading by example in technical approach to the music, and in setting the tone for the style and manner of playing that ideally the whole string section will emulate as well. She acts “both as a spokesperson for the conductor and also as a spokesperson for the musicians, and it goes both ways fluidly all the time. I think it’s kind of an ebb and flow, and I enjoy trying to bridge that gap.” Cohen sees the role of the conductor as someone who brings an artistic vision that can inspire the orchestral musicians to create something even greater than the beauty they can achieve by themselves. As the concertmaster, she helps to translate that vision into tangible sound through the musicians.

Diana Cohen: Leading Calgary's Philharmonic Harmony
Photo by Trudie Lee

Sitting on several of the CPO’s committees, she also has input into the orchestra’s search for new artistic leadership when necessary. The administrative committees of the CPO consist of both musicians and staff members, so “it’s a very democratic process… It’s good to have a lot of different voices at the table,” says Cohen. She describes the role of the artistic director, or the main conductor of an orchestra, as someone who “also has a really key role in helping to educate the board and the administration about what’s important. Inherently, in a large organization like this that’s always doing fundraising and trying to make inroads in the community, there can be a pull between the financial and the artistic. I think that the music director really is key in articulating their artistic vision and trying to make it such that all the financial backers want to jump on board.”

Speaking to what she hopes to see in the CPO’s future, Cohen thinks there is great potential for the orchestra to grow and continue to be an asset in Calgary’s culture. She says with pride, “We do a lot of different types of programming for different parts of the community,” referencing the pops and children’s concerts series, as well as her wish to see the CPO’s classical music programming appeal to the public. Cohen also enjoys getting to know donors and regulars at the orchestra in the public side of her role as concertmaster and has noticed a recent increase of returning concert-goers. “People who end up coming to concerts really love what they see and hear and try to come back – I think that’s the trend.”

Classical music can present as stuffy, old-fashioned, and unappealing to many, but Cohen says, “If you know something about a composer and you have some context, it really makes their music come alive in a very different way… sometimes the programming can be really bold, but you can educate people to love a lot of kinds of repertoire that they may not currently think that they’re open to.” Since the CPO is on the smaller side for an orchestra, Cohen is most looking forward to the CPO’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in collaboration with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra this upcoming 2023/2024 season.


About Roberta Yee 4 Articles
Roberta Yee holds Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in classical violin performance, summa cum laude, from the University of Southern California. She has played with orchestras including the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the Downey Symphony Orchestra, and has been the concertmaster of the USC Thornton Symphony and the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra under conductors including Valery Gergiev and Carl St. Clair. Roberta has performed in Canada, the US, France, and Japan, and has received awards including the USC Performance Science Award, the Christine Marie Ofiesh String Quartet Competition First Prize, and the National Youth Orchestra of Canada Award of Excellence. She currently teaches violin at the Calgary Royal Vista Long & McQuade and freelances in the Calgary area.