Elevator Chat: Diana V. Sáez, Artistic Director retiring from Coral Contigas after 25 years
Diana V. Sáez is a leading specialist in the field of Latin American music and an accomplished, visionary choral conductor. Founded in 1991, Cantigas is one of the few chamber choruses’ in the nation that specializes in the varied music of Latin America and Spain. At the end of this season (2015-2016), she will be stepping down after 25-years.
MSAC: Twenty-five years ago, you came up with the idea for Cantigas. How did you put the chorus together?
Diana V. Sáez: I had just moved from Boston to Washington DC with my husband and our one-year-old baby. I had finished graduate school with a degree in conducting and was looking for a job. The DC Metropolitan Area was and still is, a choral hub with many different kinds of choirs. None performed choral music from Latin America. I had a big collection of choral music from Latin America, and with the help of my friend Lorraine Villanueva, who had just graduated with a degree in arts management we made a plan. We announced auditions on free newspaper listings and by word of mouth. We got a great response and sang our first concert on December 1991 to a full house. The rest is history.
MSAC: What have been the high points of your more than a two-decade career as Artistic Director?
Diana V. Sáez: In October 2001, we had plans to go to Puerto Rico. We had just started rehearsals for the tour when 9/11 happened. I thought no one would show up to the next rehearsal after the event, but to my surprise, everyone showed up. Before our last concert in Puerto Rico, we learned war broke out in Afghanistan. One of the songs in the repertoire was “Entre el espanto y la ternura”; it’s about how everything in life transpires between the horror and the tenderness. I’ll never forget what we felt while we sang: for the first time the song made so much sense, it acquired a deeper meaning, and it gave us strength. The audience was moved by our interpretation. That day we all experienced the transformative power of music.
Also, I’ve learned so much about Latin American, its music, people, and history. I’ve enjoyed making music with people from all ages and backgrounds; collaborating with amazing musicians; meeting conductors from different parts of Latin America; traveling with the choir to Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Argentina and Colombia. (We are hoping to go to Cuba this coming June).
MSAC: Is there anyone or a group that has been a constant supporter of Cantigas?
Diana V. Sáez: Yes, most importantly, I’m very thankful for all the people who have supported this project: every singer who has been part of the choir during the last 25 years. Every person who has been part of the board, to the audience, and I’m especially thankful for the love and support of Magalie Salas, our executive director, who works so hard to carry out our mission.
MSAC: What venues are you most proud of performing and any special occasions?
Diana V. Sáez: We performed several times at the Washington National Cathedral as part of the Cathedral Choral Society Christmas concerts. We also performed at Strathmore Hall and the Kennedy Center Concert Hall as a guest choir of the Washington Chorus. That time was very special because I was also a guest conductor and I got the opportunity to conduct a choral mass of 200 singers.
Cantigas was asked (2012) to perform what is believed to be the premiere of Clotilde Arias's translation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Spanish, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian commissioned Cantigas's live performance and recording of the song for a new exhibition “Not Lost in Translation: The Life of Clotilde Arias,” a biographical look at the Peruvian-born composer, copywriter, translator and contributions to U.S. history.
MSAC: Why are you stepping down from the podium after the stellar career your chorale has had?
Diana V. Sáez: I feel that Cantigas has accomplished its mission to increase awareness and appreciation of the many rich styles of Latin American choral music in the area. Now we want to celebrate what we have accomplished in the last 25 years and move on. Obviously, there is more to be done, but more and more choirs are incorporating Latin American repertoire in their performances.
MSAC: What are your plans?
Diana V. Sáez: One thing I would like to do is to publish more. There are several of my choral arrangements I haven’t published yet. Also, I would love to publish my Doctoral Dissertation: An anthology of choral music from Latin America.