Roberto Diaz Gives 'Voice' To A Rosza Violin Concerto

Posted: January 12, 2001

THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting; Roberto Diaz, viola soloist. 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Tuesday at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets. Tickets: $18-$60. Info: 215-893-1999.

The burnished, dark-wood timbre of the viola hasn't inspired the huge catalog of solo works lavished on the violin and cello. Yet, for the Philadelphia Orchestra's first-chair violist Roberto Diaz, its sound is "melted chocolate, dark, smooth and rich. . .and slightly addictive. There's a very human connection, perhaps because it's in the normal voice range."

For his seasonal solo spotlight the Chilean-born Diaz, now in his fifth full season with the Orchestra, has chosen the Violin Concerto by Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa. It forms the centerpiece of conductor Fruhbeck's program, which begins with the splashy suite from "El Amor Brujo" ("Love, the Magician") by his Spanish countryman Manuel de Falla, and finishes with Ottorino Respighi's "Fountains of Rome" and "Pines of Rome," touchstones of the orchestra's past.

Miklos Rosza may be best known for his great film scores, including "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend," "Ben-Hur," "King of Kings" and "El Cid." But, as noted in his autobiography, "A Double Life," he was always working on concert works, writing a violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz, a cello concerto for Janos Starker, and a violin-cello concerto for Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky. The four-movement Viola Concerto (1984), brimming with his passionate Hungarian melodic lines and pungent harmony, was his last completed orchestral work, and his favorite.

Andre Previn, who knew Rozsa from his MGM days and who was the co-dedicatee (along with violist Pinchas Zukerman), first mentioned the work to Diaz.

"It has a unique voice, so well-written for the viola," said Diaz, "exploiting the full range with octave passages, double-stops [two notes at once], difficult in a violin-concerto way, but very musical. You can feel the Hungarian influence, the rhythmic intensity. It's an opportunity to make people more aware of the viola's possibilities, and it's not likely to be played by a guest artist."

Diaz now plays an instrument created by Mantua instrument maker Camillus Camilli in 1739. When he was hired after the auditions, the orchestra suggested he obtain a better viola, and helped him obtain it.

The violist was asked how significant a solo work is to an orchestral musician.

"For me, it's the highlight of the season," said Diaz, "but full of responsibility because you're playing at home with your colleagues. If it doesn't go so well, you're still home next week and you have to live with it - until you solo again next year. It's like the Olympics - only one race counts - but it's half mental.

"I promise you that any soloist who visits us has played their piece 100 times before and it's bulletproof, but we put ourselves in a situation where you're judged by the normal, very high standards, without the luxury of the other 100 performances. And the orchestra's patrons are used to the natural gift of [Diaz' predecessor] Joseph de Pasquale, who had a paw - though he didn't have as long fingers as I do, he had a huge palm.

"Once Isaac Stern asked me how a concert went, and I told him I had played all the notes. He said, 'But how did it go between the notes?' He showed me that those connections are sometimes the most important, and there's always something more to discover."

Last week, Diaz toured the West Coast with his string trio, which includes his cellist brother Andres and Andres Cardenas, concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony. In April, he'll play the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante in Texas with his wife, noted violinist Elissa Koljonen.

"When I came, I told Maestro Sawallisch of my desire to play chamber music on weeks off, and he said we could find a balance. He has honored it completely, agreeing to let me go once to Prague to sub for Yuri Bashmet and even helping with my itinerary. I've mixed feelings about his leaving, but he's achieved this indefinable status, and has earned the privilege and right to just make music."

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