Nick Lees: Cuban-born assistant conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra is a rising star

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Edmonton hockey fans had Wayne Gretzky and our football fans had Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams.

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But at the Winspear Center, fans of classic and popular Hollywood-style concerts now have their own rising star, Cosette Justo Valdés.

The Cuban-born and raised Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO) assistant conductor never failed to receive a warm ovation during a performance.

“After two years and nine months with ESO, I feel like I’m still on my honeymoon with our musicians, every project is so special,” she says.

“Everyone in the orchestra kissed me from day one. Being so loving and open, they encouraged me to keep giving the best of myself and helped me grow without having to change who I am.

Valdés was recently given a standing ovation at the Symphony under the Sky in Hawrelak Park, having first conducted Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which commemorates the Russian victory over the French.

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“Tchaikovsky’s music goes straight to your heart,” she told me after the show. “There is no way to avoid the feelings this causes.”

Last Night of the Proms at the Winspear Center on January 18, 2019, with Edmonton Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Cosette Justo Valdés.  © Eric Kozakiewicz Photography / Winspear Center
Last Night of the Proms at the Winspear Center on January 18, 2019, with Edmonton Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Cosette Justo Valdés. © Eric Kozakiewicz Photography / Winspear Center

ESO conductor Alex Prior said Valdés’ contribution to ESO has been “fantastic”.

“With almost no previous experience with North American orchestras, she immediately shone as an exciting, dynamic and extremely talented conductor,” he said. “Cosette has strong ideas and a unique style, full of flamboyant energy and human warmth in equal parts.

Symphony-loving friends tell me that Valdés has humble origins, but it will not be surprising that at some future date she conducts at Carnegie Hall in New York or at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Valdés was born in San Germán in the Cuban province of Holguín. “I was eight years old when I celebrated my birthday, learning piano at a 100% government-funded music boarding school, where participants had to take a talent exam to calculate their potential for a specific instrument and spaces. are extremely limited, ”says Valdés.

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“I started to study the violin and later preferred the piano, but I was asked to study music theory after being so sad and failing a piano exam when my parents had divorced.”

A violin teacher for whom she played the piano overheard her comments to her colleagues about her wish to “make more music with others” and recommended that she become a conductor. Valdes didn’t know how to get there, so the director of the music conservatory called the Havana University of the Arts and found out about the exam protocol.

“Together with two pianist friends, I prepared what I thought was a beautiful interpretation of the reduction for two pianos of the first movement of Beethoven’s 8th Symphony,” she said. “I was told it was excellent and I was congratulated on its acceptance.

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“At that time, I also visited Camaguey, Cuba’s third largest city, and heard an orchestra play for the first time. I was 18, immediately fell in love with orchestral music and knew I wanted to be a conductor.

After graduating from university at age 24, she went to Santiago De Cuba in the southeast of Cuba to conduct the Orquesta Sinfónica de Oriente and after a year as an assistant conductor, she became a conductor and artistic director for eight years.

“To improve my education, I looked for a masters degree in Europe,” Valdés said.

“Cubans at the time could not easily leave the country, but being a member of UNEAC (Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) and with the help of foreign friends, I went to Mannheim, Germany. and I found out what to do to apply for my master’s degree.

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“I had my difficulties in Germany, but all new musicians and artists have them. There, during my studies, I became a freelance conductor and conducted German orchestras.

In November 2018, she heard about an ESO opening, was interviewed, and arrived in Edmonton to take up her post two months later, in January 2019, to experience the coldest winter in 30 years.

“I was going to buy clothes before I came, but friends told me it was better to wait until I get here,” she said. “It was good advice. I bought a nice and warm red parka as soon as I arrived.

One day, walking the few minutes between his downtown home and the Winspear Center, Valdes looked in a shop window to find that his eyelashes were white and frozen.

“I tried to take a picture of myself, but my phone was also frozen,” she says. “It was definitely a new experience for me.”

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Valdés loves the Rockies but misses the Cuban Ocean. She traveled to Victoria, BC in the summer of 2020 and says it’s her new favorite place to relax.

“I miss the historic places of my years in Germany, the beautiful small towns and the languages ​​I was learning. While becoming fluent in German, I could also speak a little French and Italian. I’m trying to refresh them now.

The person who has missed him most of his life is his mother.

“My mother Ilsa was 17 when she gave birth to me and today we are more like sisters,” explains the conductor. “But we’ve never lived together since I started boarding school. I missed her then and cried at night.

“We both decided for me to stay in boarding school so I could have a better life. She was a single mom, struggling financially and came to visit me when she could. I would go home every other weekend.

“I still miss my mother and live for her. I am so grateful for all the sacrifices she made for me and my little sister. It is my honor to make her proud and it makes me so happy to see her enjoy a better life because I had the chance to become a conductor.

Footnote: Cosette Justo Valdes will lead ESO’s Tangos, Romance and Jealousy programs at the Winspear Center October 7-9. COVID protocols, including remote seating, will be observed.

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