Winsor Music’s concert at First Church Boston on Saturday celebrated the first occasion since 2002 that members of the entire Diaz Family, including Artistic Director Gabriela Diaz (violin), along with her parents Manuel (viola) and Betty Anne (piano), and two brothers, Roberto (viola) and Andres (cello) appeared on stage together in concert—on what happened to be Manuel’s birthday.
It is hard to think of another musical family that has produced talent in such abundance over multiple generations. Perhaps the Bach family, or in more modern times, Woody Guthrie, his son Arlo, and the third generation of the Guthrie family who tour regularly. Gabriela wrote a blog post which encapsulates what growing up in such a musical family meant.
Gabriela is well known to local audiences for performances with such distinguished ensembles as Sound Icon, Ludovico Ensemble, Dinosaur Annex, Firebird Ensemble, Boston Musica Viva, and Callithumpian Consort. Those who have been in Boston for some time will remember Roberto and Andres from their days at the New England Conservatory, after which Roberto became a member of the Boston Symphony, going on to play in the Minnesota Orchestra, as principal of both the National Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra; now he is the President of Curtis, while maintaining an enviable schedule as a soloist and chamber musician. His performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Viola Concerto recently won a Grammy. Andres won the 1986 Naumberg Competition and toured the world as a chamber musician and soloist, spending a few years on the faculty of Boston University, before going to Texas to be on the faculty of SMU and holding a chair at the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto, while still actively performing.
Manuel, a long-time member of the Atlanta Symphony, and Betty Anne, who studied with Menahem Pressler, were both active in the Georgia Academy of Music, and had active chamber music careers.
One could not help thinking what a gift it was to their parents to have these phenomenal musicians play together as a birthday present, each a master of their instrument, making music at the highest level imaginable.
The program opened with Beethoven’s chestnut of a duet, the Duo for viola and cello in E-flat Major “with two eyeglasses obbligato,” WoO 32. Beethoven wrote it for his friend and patron Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz. Since Beethoven himself played viola, and the Baron was a good amateur cellist, it is very likely that he intended the duo for them to play together. Beethoven would often tease his friend about his nearsightedness, so perhaps the playful nickname of the piece rises from that. Roberto said that when younger, the two brothers would wear large sunglasses to play this, but nowadays, they need to make sure they are wearing the right reading glasses instead.
The Diaz brothers have been playing this piece together for probably upwards of 30 years, but it had all the charm and freshness that makes the piece a delight to hear and play. The piece is actually quite challenging to perform, but Roberto and Andres made it sound easy.
From the first statement of the opening the theme in the violin of Beethoven’s four-movement Trio for violin, viola, and cello in G Major, op. 9 No. 1. 4 movements, , to the sweetness of the lullaby-like second movement, and the extremely presto final Presto, one could never expect a finer execution.
While one often thinks of the ability of the left hand of a string player to define tone and agility, it is when the right hand, the bow arm, gets equal or greater attention that the level of playing rises beyond the ordinary. Roberto Diaz may possess the fastest and most flexible right hands in the business. Because of this speed, he is able to use a longer segment of bow in a détaché stroke, giving greater power and projection to his sound. Violas can sometimes be lost in the power of a much bigger cello or the higher octaves of a violin. Not here. Together with Andres’s rich, bass cello tone and Gabriela’s silvery violin all voices blended in constant conversation.
After intermission, Manuel and Betty Anne joined the trio to play the premiere of work by Marti Epstein. Winsor Music has made it a project to commission hymns on the subject of tolerance, peace and unity for audience participation. The composer chooses the text, and the audience is taught the song and sings with the ensemble. Most audiences have not sung in a choral setting since kindergarten, and it is a brilliant idea of community building on the part of Winsor to coax audience members to participate in the music making. The reviewer recalls the powerful experience of being led in audience choral singing by Pete Seeger — one feels instantly closer to the performer and one’s neighbors. (It can work in church, too, if people sing…)
Epstein explain that her title and text come from “Moby Dick.” a favorite book of the composer: The quotation “Yet there is hope; Time and Tide flow wide.” comes from the portion where the sailors are starting to worry that Ahab’s obsession with the white whale may signify madness and doom for the crew. Epstein spoke of a similar sense of dread and anxiety that many feel these days, given the fragile state of our democracy, and the sense of hope that these lines give; that in the expanse of history, ours is but a moment, and that Hope reigns. Similar in a sense, to the famous lines in “Casablanca,” that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Epstein’s work and her setting of the text were profound in their simplicity; when sung/played as a round, the lines weave a complex harmonic tapestry. The atmosphere created is similar to the universal serenity of Ives’s “Unanswered Question”. One had the impression of being underwater and looking upwards towards light, of waves lapping over each other (the time signature was 6/8) and with mysterious burbles of piano arpeggios rising upwards. Definitely worth several repeat performances.
The closer, Dohnanyi’s Serenade in C Major, Op. 10, a masterpiece of the string trio repertoire, comprises five movements: Marcia: Allegro; Romanza: Adagio non troppo; Scherzo: Vivace; Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto; and Rondo (Finale): Allegro vivace. It bases its structure on Beethoven’s Trio, Op. 8, but in a Hungarian flavor. In an outstanding performance, the long, romantic viola solo in the Romanza and the cello pizzicato in the Scherzo stood out. When all three Diazes played in rhythmic unison, they virtually created a super-sized string instrument. If you ever get a chance to hear any of these performers elsewhere, don’t miss it. If you get to hear them all together, consider yourself fortunate.
Chamber music at its finest is intimate and personal. It is music intended to be shared among friends and family. The Winsor family and the Diaz family intersected this Saturday night, and we are all the richer for it.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.