Never Give Up

Pedro Díaz on perseverance, hard work, and his unexpected journey to the top

Volume 117, No. 10October, 2017

Photo by Roberto Antillon

Pedro Díaz, a member of Local 802 since 1997, is considered one of the top English horn players in the world. A native of Puerto Rico, he received his early musical training at the Escuela Libre de Música, an esteemed public school for the performing arts. He joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 2005 and has performed as solo English hornist in hundreds of productions, including as a guest artist with the Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic. By his own count, he has performed Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at least 24 times under the batons of James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle. A sought-after teacher, Díaz has served as a full faculty member at Juilliard and SUNY Stony Brook and has lectured extensively at the Manhattan School of Music, Eastman, Hartt and many others. His international appearances include master classes in Panama, Italy, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, Leipzig, Berlin and Italy, to name a few. On a recent research trip to Italy, Díaz was able to track down the original solo and orchestral parts for the Donizetti Concertino for English horn (1816) at the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica di Bologna. For the first time in 200 years, these parts will be published in a critical edition along with a new album release performance by Díaz, featuring Riccardo Frizza and musicians of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Pedro Díaz to learn about his life in music.


Bob Pawlo: I’d like to start by asking you what I ask all of our musicians, because the answer is usually surprising. What are you first memories of music?

Pedro Díaz: My father, Emilio Díaz Valcarcel, was a celebrated novelist, but he was also an opera lover who once wanted to be a singer. As a kid, I grew up listening to his opera records, but also mood music, crooners and big bands. We grew up in Puerto Rico and Spain and my parents would take us to a concert every Sunday, and I would learn about orchestras and classical music. I always knew I wanted to be a performer. Actually, I was one of those kids who always wanted to run away with the circus! Whenever my parents took me to the circus in Spain, instead of being happy, I was sad, because I just wanted to stay. But I think it was my parents’ love for music that made me a musician. By the time I was 10, I learned how to play the cuatro – a kind of four-stringed guitar. My teacher also taught me solfege, so I got an early start with music theory.

Bob Pawlo: How did you make the switch from the cuatro to double reeds?

Pedro Díaz: My brother started at the Escuela Libre de Musica in Puerto Rico on French horn. Three years later it was my chance to audition for the school, and, contrary to anybody’s wishes, I picked the oboe. I had heard a TV commercial for Lowenbrau beer that had a very beautiful melody using the oboe and I thought, “Oh, I want to play that. That sounds great!” But the school’s facilities were horrific. It was an abandoned Coast Guard facility that was sinking in a swamp. There were mosquitoes. There had been floods. The instruments were corroded and damaged and hardly worked. If you were in that school, it’s because you loved music and nothing else. But I had a wonderful music teacher. Each of us would get him for two or three minutes at a time for private lessons on our instruments, then he would go onto the next student. But that encouragement was all we needed. By the time I was in ninth grade, I got a much better instrument and was in the Youth Symphony. I remember the first time playing Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” I was basically in tears. It was the emotion of playing Baroque music in a real orchestra. I wasn’t reading music well and it was challenging, but it was a great experience. Our youth orchestra played concerts all over.

Bob Pawlo: Was there a moment when you realized that you wanted music to be your career?

Pedro Díaz: My parents were never pushy about my career, and I was never forced to practice. But one day I had an opportunity to come to the United States. The American Wind Symphony got a grant to put together an international orchestra. I was chosen, and we gathered in Pittsburgh at the Stephen Foster home. I got to study with my first teacher in the United States, James Gorton of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and he was an amazing teacher. Soon I got a chance to study with John Mack of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Bob Pawlo: What were lessons with Mr. Mack like?

Pedro Díaz: They were wonderful. He was a very generous man, and he knew no social structures; he just taught anyone who wanted to learn the oboe. It didn’t matter whether his students were professionals or beginners. He was always available to teach people who were interested in learning. Some of his main lessons involved perseverance. Trying to be reliable. Trying to be true to yourself. He was the one who convinced me to audition for Juilliard, where I ended up going.

Bob Pawlo: What was Juilliard like for you?

Pedro Díaz: It was like going from a flower field into a battle zone. It was boot camp. There was a sense of urgency that I gathered from my teacher, Elaine Douvas, and from the school. The requirements were very high, and the deadlines were imminent.

Bob Pawlo: What were the key things you think you learned from Ms. Douvas?

Pedro Díaz: An uncompromising work ethic. I mean, I would like to think that I learned it. I don’t know if she thinks I did. I’d like to think that I achieved at least 15 percent of it. She taught me so many things about playing, but also about reed making – buying the cane, having the right equipment to process the cane, and consistently making time to construct the reeds.

Bob Pawlo: You’re a musician, but you’re also a carpenter.

Pedro Díaz: Absolutely. And a fine one you must be.

Photo by Roberto Antillon

Bob Pawlo: After Juilliard, how did your career take off?

Pedro Díaz: My career was very accidental. I was not one of those people who was on the Yellow Brick Road. I had a lot of trial and error. I was very inconsistent, but a lot of my troubles had to do with the overall economy. My path was a little bit torturous, but I did leave Juilliard with all the tools that I needed to continue and to persevere. I first went back to Puerto Rico, and I played in the same band that my teacher had played in. Then I heard about an audition in South Africa for the Kwazulu Natal Philharmonic. They were auditioning for principal oboe and also English horn. I sent a tape of my oboe playing and I included a tape of my English horn playing, which was very raw and immature. And they complained a little bit about the English horn playing, and so I made another tape. They didn’t offer me the oboe job, but I got the English horn job, and I think they gave it to me reluctantly. You know, my oboe playing was fine. I guess the fates decided that I was going to end up on English horn whether I liked it or not.

Bob Pawlo: And how was your first experience playing in a professional orchestra?

Pedro Díaz: Well, full immersion was quite interesting. The day after I arrived in South Africa, we rehearsed the Berlioz “Carnival Overture,” which I barely knew, and I was expected to be playing it at a professional level. Let’s just say that I will never forget that day.

Bob Pawlo: It was a good learning experience?

Pedro Díaz: (laughs) I would say an intense learning experience. I ended up playing in South Africa for about two years. From there I went to the Mexico City Philharmonic. But in Mexico, the economy crashed and the orchestras stopped paying, so I went back to Pittsburgh. I took an audition for the Pittsburgh Opera on English horn, and won it. I remember learning to play “La Boheme” there. And I also played “Tosca,” and totally fell in love with the Puccini operas. Most importantly, my English horn learning continued. I studied with the English horn player at the Pittsburgh Symphony, Harold Smoliar, and he taught me basically about 90 percent of all the tips and tricks that there are.

Bob Pawlo: What were they key things that Mr. Smoliar showed you?

Pedro Díaz: Well, it’s something that I try to tell my students today. The English horn is not really a big oboe; it’s an alto instrument, and it requires that you hear it in that range, just like the mellow sound of a dove contrasts to the high tones of the warbler. They’re in different channels, different frequencies. They cannot be mixed. So you must really think of the sound that the English horn portrays and absolutely forget that you’re an oboe player. Of course you have to start with very good oboe playing to transport you into the English horn, because the techniques are similar. If you don’t become an accomplished oboe player, it would be difficult to have good habits on the English horn too.

Bob Pawlo: So the skills on one transfer to the other.

Pedro Díaz: Right, because the oboe, like any soprano instrument, requires precision, stability, definition. On English horn, those things are not as important, but it’s nice to have them when you need them. It’s more like a sort of a loose and soft and luscious alto sound, like the cello or viola.

Bob Pawlo: I think of how your own sound has been described by others as “evocative, eloquent and expressive.” Those kinds of adjectives might describe the English horn timbre.

Pedro Díaz: Yes, the English horn sound is deeper and more relaxed than oboe. Not pointing up, but sort of pointing around you. I also think of what my other teachers told me, including Louis Rosenblatt and Felix Kraus. What they all had in common is the concept of the alto voice, that you must stop thinking as an oboist. You must stop trying to be precise and tight. You must relax. You must blow in a manner that makes a sound that blooms, that carries not by penetration but by unfolding. It must flourish. The dolce sound. This is also something Elaine Douvas emphasized. It comes to all of us from the great teacher Marcel Tabuteau, the founder of the American oboe tradition.

Bob Pawlo: I think now we’re at the point in your story when you moved to New York City. How did you get here?

Pedro Díaz: I just decided to move to New York and try my luck. I had friends in the city who suggested that I come here. I joined Local 802. I had a chance to meet some great oboe players like Diane Lesser and Rich Dallesio, who were very helpful in giving me work. They were great colleagues. I found work with the New Jersey Symphony and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and on Broadway.

Bob Pawlo: And what led to the Metropolitan Opera?

Pedro Díaz: Well, subsequent to those great years were some not very good years. Freelancing can be a roller coaster. Some of my colleagues died. Some of my shows closed. I fell into a depression and decided to leave NYC for Guadalajara, Mexico. But I also knew there was an audition at the Met coming up. I told my wife – who was my girlfriend at the time – that I was going to prepare really well and that this was going to be my last audition. And if I didn’t get that job, I would basically just change careers.

Bob Pawlo: Wow!

Pedro Díaz: Yeah. So, I had a chance to practice a lot when I was in Guadalajara, because the schedule permitted it, and this was going to be my third audition for the Met. I had already been a semi-finalist for previous auditions for principal oboe, and so I basically knew what the sound of the oboe is in the Met.

Bob Pawlo: And how was the audition?

Pedro Díaz: My audition was incredible. It was the one time that I felt completely enlightened and ready to fight. There’s a fight-or-flight feeling in auditions. Many times, I’ve felt the urge to flee. This is the one time that I decided to fight. I realized that all of the bad gigs and traumas I’d been through had actually gotten me to this moment. All the people who had believed in me helped me get here, especially my wife. There is power in having someone believe in you. It’s the power of love.

Bob Pawlo: And what was your first actual performance at the Met? What did you play?

Pedro Díaz: Well, it’s funny, because my first performance from the Met was not a scheduled one. It was an emergency call that I got the same day to play an afternoon show of “Don Carlo,” which I totally sight-read, and my wife had told me not to do it (laughs). It was a live broadcast also! So I had to play this huge solo on the English horn and also play second oboe and sight read. Lots of people heard it, and I did get some great feedback, and it was the way things had always worked for me – you know, full immersion. I felt a sense of pride, but also there was a sense of, “What now? How am I going to do this? How am I going to pull it off? I’m not worthy!” But now, 12 years later, every day I wake up, and I’m very grateful and thankful for that one day of enlightenment when I won the audition at the Met.

Bob Pawlo: What is a typical week like for you? And how much time do you have to dedicate to reed making?

Pedro Díaz: Here’s the part of the story where the honeymoon is over, because unfortunately I am the only player in my section who plays the English horn. When a piece calls for no English horn, I play second oboe. Sometimes I’m asked to play principal oboe for certain shows. But it’s very difficult to play two instruments at a very high level in the Met and also make reeds and own equipment for both and buy cane for both. It’s something that I’m still trying to reconcile. I spend five to six hours a week just on reeds. When we’re playing “Tristan,” I’ll spend two hours a day on reed making. There are weeks when I have to switch from oboe to English horn, and there are at least three or four English horn solos a week, plus getting ready for second oboe. It’s a daunting experience. I try to keep my cool, have confidence in myself, and remember that I love the music that I’m playing. I try to get into the character of the music. The more that you can get into the character of the music, the more you can flow with it. At that moment, you don’t worry about whether or not you have a good reed.

Bob Pawlo: What advice would you give to musicians, especially oboists or English horn players starting out their careers now?

Pedro Díaz: If you really think that this is what you want to do and you know that you have a special devotion and talent for it, you should just stick to it, persevere and don’t give up. It’s a very long race. You don’t have to arrive quickly. It could take you – like me – 30 years to arrive, but that just makes it even sweeter. Take every audition that you can. And contact every oboe player that you can and offer your services, offer to play for them, offer to send them recordings. You should also attend whatever gatherings Local 802 offers. Be as professional as you can.

Bob Pawlo: Lastly, National Hispanic Heritage Month is taking place right now. May I ask you how you think your Hispanic heritage has affected you as a musician? Have you suffered any discrimination based on your heritage? How has your heritage made you a stronger musician? Do you have any advice to Hispanic or Latino musicians who are starting out in the field?

Pedro Díaz: My Hispanic heritage has neither advanced or deterred my career path. But living in a world rampant with racist elements, as evidenced in the current-day politics, of course greatly affected my relationships and self-esteem in the past. When being interviewed, I suppose that it is always best to “rise above” and be gentle about difficult subjects like this one, especially if it’s all in the past. But when I read interviews like that, they just seem insincere to me, even though it is expected of someone in my current position.

I do not mean to write a sequel to a well-known literary “success” regarding freelancing life in NY, but the truth is that difficult situations are a part of life.  In some cases, I lost some work because of my determination to keep my dignity, rather than face hostile working situations. There are legal mechanisms in place to protect musicians. I encourage anyone – regardless of race, sex or nationality – to take advantage of them and not be afraid of repercussions.

On the other hand, I have also enjoyed great camaraderie with musicians of diverse national and ethnic origins in my freelancing years. The Broadway pits and local freelance groups are made of strong and talented artists, but you need a thick skin sometimes. Today, as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, I observe a kaleidoscope of great musicians from all walks of life, who all got there using the same proper channels. It makes you feel like you’re working among equals. This may be the reason why our orchestra has seen many women, African Americans, Asians and Puerto Ricans as members. In a triple-blind audition, music exhibits no color, age, religion or sex.