Valparaiso University Orchestra Director Honorary Mention for American Prize

Diego Piedra, DMA, assistant professor of music and director of orchestra at Valparaiso University received an honorary mention in the coveted American Prize in Orchestral Performance in 2022. The Prize grew from the belief that exemplary musical performance too often goes unappreciated and unrewarded, and is issued for the best orchestral performances by American-based orchestras.

“It felt very good for me,” Professor Piedra says. “It was the first national prize that I ever got in the U.S. I think it’s a sensational feeling. I’m very proud.”

The Prize is awarded in various divisions based on submitted performance recordings. Professor Piedra took an honorary mention in the college/university orchestra division for a performance he did with Luther College Symphony Orchestra, where he was a sabbatical replacement for conductor and violin teacher in 2019. He was also a finalist in the professional orchestra division for a performance with the London Classical Soloists.

Professor Piedra comes from a Costa Rican family already steeped in musical performance. His mother was a pianist, and all three of his siblings also studied music and went on to perform professionally. Professor Piedra began playing the violin at the age of six. By the time he was 15, he had performed in France and studied music in the United States. Taking the first steps towards a career outside of music only served to reaffirm to Professor Piedra that performing arts were where he belonged.

“When I went into the registration office for a career in international studies, I thought ‘what am I doing here? This is not me; this is not what I want.’ So I turned right around and got out,” Professor Piedra says.

Instead of pursuing international studies, Professor Piedra obtained his bachelor’s from Baylor University, and a master’s in violin performance at the University of Michigan. For a year after that, he lived in Schaumburg, Illinois while pursuing professional performance as a career, before returning to the University of Michigan for his second master’s degree in conducting.

With that experience and education under his belt, Professor Piedra returned to Costa Rica, where he co-founded the National Youth Symphony orchestra Manuel María Gutiérrez, which gives children in dangerous and oppressive situations an outlet through musical performance. Today, the orchestral program has become part of the nation’s Ministry of Culture and cannot legally be dissolved. Professor Piedra ran the program for seven years while conducting, composing, teaching orchestra and violin.

After seven years of building the program, Professor Piedra returned to the U.S. to earn his DMA in orchestral conducting from the University of Michigan in 2018. He then spent two years being a full-time father to his first child, after which he sought full-time employment in the U.S., finding it at Valparaiso University in 2020. A major challenge loomed around the corner, however, both for Professor Piedra, and for music education across the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit few groups harder than musical ensembles. Restricted by distance and isolation, many groups, including the Valparaiso University Orchestra, were reduced to numbers typically too small to play most existing compositions. That obstacle would not stop Professor Piedra and his students, however.

“Because there was no music that would fit that kind of ensemble, I decided I would make something,” Professor Piedra says. “It was made for the students, thinking about them, and tailored to them as well.” The composition was called Dreams and it was premiered by and dedicated to the students of the Valparaiso University Symphony Orchestra in 2021.

Professor Piedra hopes to bring the orchestra back up to its pre-pandemic numbers by working with K-12 schools in the area, bringing young musicians — especially strings players — to the University to work with him and the current program.

“I want to make some noise. A lot of people don’t realize we have this here, and we have a stellar team with amazing faculty performers,” Professor Piedra says.

One of his upcoming performances is the Valparaiso University Symphony Orchestra’s April 22 concert featuring a performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto by Joseph Bognar, DMA, Frederick A. and Mazie N. Reddel Professor of Music. What Professor Piedra finds especially exciting about the performance is that all of the works surrounding Professor Bognar’s performance will have been composed by women. This also marks the first professional collaboration between Professors Piedra and Bognar.

“This is the very first time I get to do something targeted so specifically,” Professor Piedra says. “The idea is to bring these female composers to the spotlight and put them in equal footing with the well established male composers, giving them the spotlight they deserve.”

The Orchestra will also continue the Halloween concerts that began in 2022, where everyone from ensemble members to children as well as adults in the audience are encouraged to dress in costume. Professor Piedra, who dressed as Darth Vader in 2022, believes that the mix of popular music (such as from the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises) helps dispel the notion that a university orchestra can only play academic pieces.

“Suddenly we had so many people come, including children. It was amazing, it was really, really beautiful to see,” says Professor Piedra.