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A Violinist, a Violist, and the Romance of Tradition

After violinist Elissa Lee Koljonen graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1994, she was invited to perform at the Cape and Islands Chamber Music Festival (now the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival). At a rehearsal there, she confessed to the violist she was to perform with that she had never before performed the popular HalvorsenPassacaglia for violin and viola (based on music of Handel). The violist, Roberto Díaz, then admitted the same thing to her.

Now, more than 20 years later, the two are married, have two children, and continue to perform regularly, separately and together. Díaz, former principal viola of The Philadelphia Orchestra, is president and CEO of Curtis, and Koljonen maintains a busy international schedule soloing and performing chamber music.

Any disputes in the marriage, says Díaz playfully, are worked out while they’re holding their instruments. “When you have expensive instruments in hand, you tend to behave yourself a little better,” he says.

One of these instruments is Díaz’s viola, the ex-Primrose Amati. Díaz expanded on the honor of owning this instrument by recording an album with pianist Robert Koenig of transcriptions and encores by Primrose (the CD garnered a 2007 Grammy nomination). The connection with Primrose through this instrument and these pieces holds a lot of significance for Díaz.

Elissa Lee Koljonen playing the Allegro from the Violin Concerto in E major (BWV 1042) by J. S. Bach in this production for German television. Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, James Judd, cond.:


Koljonen likewise is drawn to the tradition handed down to her. As a little girl on the bus going to school, she would would listen to one track over and over. It was the Aaron Rosand recording of the Jascha Heifetz transcription of Brahms's song “Wie Melodien zieht es mir,” called “Contemplation.”

She dreamed of performing it one day. Koljonen went on to study with Rosand at Curtis, and today she often plays “Contemplation,” many times as an encore, saying that at the end of a concert it feels “like a great way to say goodbye to the audience.” And then she can come home to husband Roberto and family.

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