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The musical Cohens spark a Jewish Renaissance

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Alexander Cohen and Diana Cohen at the Peace Bridge in Calgary (Trudie Lee photo)

If you’ve been to a Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) concert in the last decade, you might have noticed looking at its roster of musicians not one, but two Cohens: concertmaster and first chair violinist, Diana Cohen, and timpanist, Alexander Cohen. As it turns out they are not two fellow musicians who happen to share the same last name. They are brother and sister.

In a phone interview in early May, Diana Cohen described how they came to Calgary, her brother arriving first, in 2011, when a position as timpanist, which are rare, came up with the CPO. Diana Cohen moved the following year jumping at the chance to serve as concertmaster, an important role in an orchestra who acts as a liaison between the conductor and the musicians, and as first violinist. She continues explaining the opportunity was also appealing as it allowed her to be in the same city as her brother.

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Diana Cohen, 39, and her brother, Alexander, 35, were both born in Cleveland, Ohio to two musical parents, Franklin Cohen, a clarinetist who graduated from the Juilliard School in New York, and Lynette Diers Cohen, a bassoonist who studied at Oberlin College in Ohio.

“Growing up in a musical household gave us a love of music,” Diana Cohen said and the four of them performed together until her mother died of cancer at the age of 55 in 2003.

However the siblings haven’t been successful in convincing their father to join them. “He’s quite happy in Cleveland,” she says, about her father,  who continues his vibrant career as principal clarinet emeritus of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Diana Cohen still maintains close ties with her native city, and with her father. The pair curate an international music festival they founded, ChamberFest Cleveland, and perform there regularly with Alexander Cohen joining them occasionally. They also perform and record together extensively, one moving project being that of Argentine Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” a string and clarinet piece based on the story of the Kabbalist from Provence who believed that everything in the universe was rooted in the combinations of letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

When recording this piece with her father in 2009, Diana used an image on the cover of the CD from a pianist and artist whom she had met and admired, Roman Rabinovich. As Isaac the Blind extrapolated nine centuries earlier that everything was written already, the young musicians reconnected years later and married in 2017.

Rabinovich has brought his own fascinating story to this accomplished family. Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1985, he immigrated with his family to Israel at the age of 8 where he made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta at the age of 10. At 17, the family moved to the U.S. where he graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School. Today, he lives in Calgary with  his wife and travels the world giving solo recitals and performances as a guest soloist with countless symphonies.

Diana Cohen has no favourite instrument. She says it all “depends on what I’m playing currently.”