Kristina Mascher-Turner: Who was the first person to put a horn in your hands all those years ago in Costa Rica? What was it about the instrument that fascinated you?
Hugo Valverde: The first person who introduced me to the horn was Francisco Molina, the general manager of the “Escuela de Música de Barva” back in 2003, in my hometown, Barva. He insisted that I chose the horn because it had been a while since someone wanted to play it. My very first horn teacher was Daniel León Rodríguez, who is also from Barva.
KMT: Speaking of Costa Rica, what is it like to study and make a living in music in your home country? There seems to be a rich tradition of community bands and ensembles, for instance.
HV: There are several small music schools that are part of a program called “SINEM: Sistema Nacional de Educación Musical (National System of Musical Education)”, but they are only to start the students into music. If their desire is to undertake a more intense course of studies, they’re going to have to gain entrance into the two main music schools in Costa Rica: “Escuela de Artes Musicales” of the University of Costa Rica, or the National Music Institute; both schools located in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. Many of these schools are located in remote areas of the country. This is quite remarkable because they offer an opportunity to all those students to learn more about the music world and its wonders, but they don’t offer college level teaching. This turns into an obstacle for them to keep up with their academic studies, especially if they live far away from San José.
Making a living as a musician in Costa Rica is not that easy because the performing opportunities are quite limited. If I were to provide an example as a classical musician, it is definitely difficult to get a stable and long-term job, since the only professional and full-time orchestra in the country is the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica. The employees who work there are public ones, meaning that they will retire according to the plans of the government, not when they want. This job provides immense stability because you’re basically a government employee, but it's the main reason why so many other musicians can’t aspire for a job like that right out of school. This was one of the reasons why I left Costa Rica back in 2012.
However, there are many other musicians who develop their careers and incline towards other areas in music: salsa, latin jazz, jazz, merengue, etc. These musicians work mostly as freelancers, and they perform all around the country. They have to be quite versatile if they want to manage all those genres well. I admire them greatly! There are community bands and most of them are part of the music schools in every hometown, and that’s how I was brought into music, when my mom would take me with her to see my hometown’s community band play. It was always very special because my dad played trumpet there!
KMT: What advantages or disadvantages do you think growing up in Costa Rica gave you personally, preparing for life in the performing arts?
HV: Thinking about the advantages, the fact that I was always close to concerts provided a more diverse view of the arts scene here in Costa Rica. My parents would take me to community band concerts, orchestra rehearsals as well as concerts and many other opportunities that paved the way to a life to be dedicated to the arts; music specifically.
As members of the performing arts community, we must always acknowledge how vital the audience is, because without them, we wouldn’t be able to thrive, nor to dedicate a life to the arts. My parents made me very aware of the importance of the audience and of supporting the performing arts in every possible way. It’s not the same case in every household, unfortunately, which leads to the main disadvantage I experienced here in Costa Rica. Not having the support from most people in the country, or the ones who think that the arts are not a worthy career. I grew up in a town where many people are known for being artists, and the support we receive is invaluable, but it’s not the same in the rest of the country. I thought that it would be the same in the rest of the country, but it wasn’t the case, and that affected me a lot. The biggest issue is that there’s still a long way for artists to feel 100% confident they have to dedicate their lives to art without feeling discouraged or even discriminated for choosing a real career that will deem you deserving of support.
KMT: So many of you from the Rice Horn Crew have landed nicely on your feet. What was it like to be in Bill Vermeulen’s class and together with your fellow students? Do you have any stories or anecdotes from your time in Houston that you’d like to share?
HV: To have been part of Bill VerMeulen’s studio at Rice was something very special, but it had its challenges. While at Lynn University, I was always impressed to hear about the successes of the horn studio at Rice University, and that made me prepare at my best to secure a spot if there was an opening. When I got my acceptance letter into Rice, I couldn’t have been happier, and I knew that a period with lots of work to do was about to start. When I first heard my classmates, I was just mesmerized by their level of playing, and that right there served as my main motivation to improve from Day 1. I remember telling Bill that I was in trouble because I was the worst one in the studio. He replied instantly that I was wrong because I had things to offer to the other classmates that I could do very well, and the whole point of being there was to share those, but most importantly to learn from the rest of the studio and improve together daily. I think this is the main reason why we all wanted to get better and be able to see that improvement each day. We got together every Saturday morning at Stude Concert Hall to play mock auditions for each other. That helped me tremendously, always being ready for a mock audition, because that’s the best way to deal with the anxiousness and nerves created by playing in front of a committee - even more so in front of your classmates, teachers and other friends as well. It was a time where I learned how to trust in myself even more, and to reaffirm that the horn is just the best instrument out there and that it shouldn’t be considered that hard to play!
KMT: With the MET audition, was it a matter of the right chops in the right place at the right time, or were you purposely seeking an opera position?
HV: My dream job was always to play in a major orchestra in the United States, when I saw the Met audition listing, I could not let the opportunity go by without giving it a try. I got to see the Met live back in 2016, while I was in NYC auditioning for the Orchestral Performance program at the Manhattan School of Music. Javier Gándara (one of the third horns of the Met Orchestra) gave me a ticket to see Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” That opera night was just marvellous, one of the best musical experiences of my life, being out there in the audience. The colors I heard, the amount of expression, the phrasing, the versatility and the incredibly high level of the Met Orchestra really impressed me that night. It confirmed my desire to be part of a major orchestra in the US, and then the Met became a goal after that night. It was merely a matter of being ready for such a big audition, for which I prepared thoroughly for about 4 months.
KMT: How would you say it’s different preparing for an audition for an opera orchestra, compared with one for a symphony orchestra?
HV: The only notable difference on the paper is the amount of opera excerpts you will be asked to play, but I would say there is not much of a difference in the preparation process and learning the excerpts. It could take more time for you to learn all the opera excerpts, but it’s something you will notice right away, once you’ve looked at the excerpt list. I listened to every excerpt through the “MET Opera on Demand” platform, which I accessed to from the Rice Library, and spent many hours listening to every detail: tempo, dynamics, sound color, etc… It was more work to do in terms of listening in case you don’t know many of the operatic excerpts.
KMT: Tell us what happened to you when the pandemic brought everything to a halt.
HV: I had just finished playing “The Flying Dutchman” with Gergiev conducting, and we wondered what was going to happen next. The following day we received a notification saying that all performances at the Met were going to be canceled until further notice, and they kept moving the come-back date even further. This upcoming March 11th will be a whole year since I last performed at the Met, and I miss it terribly.
Nothing in life prepares you for the hard hit of a global pandemic, and it just doesn’t get any easier to deal with. I took the decision of moving back to Costa Rica 11 days after we got the notification that all performances at the Met were canceled; from April 1st 2020, the management of the Met decided to furlough the entire orchestra, chorus, stage hands, and many other departments of the company. That day I will never forget, because a lot of thoughts start crossing your mind, and especially when it’s one of the most stable jobs in the country for a musician.
Adapting to a life without concerts with an audience (temporarily, of course) is not what an artist would want, this is why it has brought many days of uncertainty and demotivation, no question about it. It has certainly been hard to stay 100% motivated and in the same shape I was when I finished Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”, but the silver lining of this crazy time has been getting to spend a lot of quality time with my dear family back in Costa Rica, and to enjoy the beautiful weather. One of the projects I decided to do was to put together and organize warmup sessions with the horn students from Costa Rica, led by different professional horn players from around the US, Europe and other areas of the world. The first part of the warmups had 31 guests, which meant having a different guest daily for a whole month, and the second part of those was only two weeks long. A total of 45 horn players were very kind and generous with their time to give this space in their schedules for us to learn more about the horn. It was tremendously helpful and fun.
After that, I stayed motivated for about 2 months, but then my willingness to practice started to decay slowly, and it got to a point where I just wasn’t playing at all. The turning point was when my mom told me I wasn’t acting like the curious and hard-working son she knew from before, that I was turning into another type of person… this hit me very hard, and even more so when two of my neighbors asked my parents if I had left to the US, because they stopped hearing the horn through their backyards… these two events were crucial for me to get my stuff together and start practicing again. It has been a month and a half since I recovered from that and I’m back in great shape with the horn, and also physically, since I went back to a very active routine of mountain biking with my old friends here.
My family has been doing ok, and no one in my household, nor my other relatives has been diagnosed with the virus. I hope it remains that way until we all get vaccinated, hopefully sooner than later. Regarding to moving back to NYC, it all depends if the Met will reopen in September 2021, but I’m hopeful we will do our best to bring the magic of the MET Opera at Lincoln Center back to life very soon.
KMT: How, if at all, would you encourage young musicians hoping to start a career as performers, in light of the damage the coronavirus has created for the global cultural sector? Is it realistic to hope for this anymore?
HV: It will be different from what we used to see and be told, but this doesn’t mean, by any means, that it will be end of the arts industry. Young musicians nowadays must be even more creative, and their projects always have to include virtual content. I often encourage younger people to raise awareness of the importance of the audience and the dedication we must have to keep people interested in supporting our work, as they’re the ones who will show us that very needed support after all. A large amount of our work ought to be outside the practice room, making music accessible to the rest of the world, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, among other aspects. Music is a universal language and shall always remain so!
KMT: What, besides music, gives you pleasure and inspiration?
HV: My family has been the main source of my motivation and inspiration, hence, all the work I do will be reflected in how they raised me. They always inspired me and forever will. Seeing unity amongst my relatives and friends also makes me happy and in a way, gives me pleasure to be alive, and that I try to portray when I play music at the Met, and wherever I happen to have the privilege to be doing so.