04/08/2013 02:48 EDT | Updated 06/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Canadian to conduct Cuban classical orchestra

Charles Cozens is about to be a first Canadian conductor in more than 20 years to wield the baton in front of a Cuban orchestra.

On April 10, the Brantford, Ont.-based conductor will give a concert with the Villa Clara Symphony Orchestra in Santa Clara, about 300 km from Havana, under a special program created by the orchestra to foster international connections. The program of orchestral dance music includes two of his own compositions.

While Canadian jazz artists such as Jane Bunnett have forged strong ties with Cuba and some choral conductors have worked with Cuban groups, Cozens is believed to be the first classical conductor invited from Canada in the last 20 years.

The opportunity arose out of a chance meeting Cozens had when he and his wife were vacationing in Cuba.

He’d stepped in to tickle the ivories at the resort piano and one of the regular musicians who played there recognized she was a hearing a professional. They chatted for a bit and she became very excited when she learned Cozens was a conductor and composer.

“She said ‘Why don’t I talk to the general director of the orchestra and perhaps we could invite you to conduct and do a special program for us,’” Cozens told CBC News.

He thought nothing might come of it, but an e-mail arrived the following week, inviting him to submit a program to the board of directors of the Villa Clara orchestra.

The orchestra, based in a provincial capital, is not as well known as the National Symphony of Cuba which has toured internationally, but has 70 professional musicians, Cozens said.

Embassy helps with sheet music

He has sent sheet music in advance of the visit, with help from the Canadian Embassy in Havana, as the orchestra had no way to print music they didn't have in their own library.

Aware of Cuba’s poverty and problems in getting parts for instruments caused by the ongoing U.S. embargo, Cozens also was able to get music stores in Brantford and Hamiton, Ont. to donate violin strings and rosin.

Cozens had 10 days of rehearsal with the Cuban orchestra ahead of the concert Wednesday.

He said he’ll be able to pinpoint any difficulties the musicians are having with new music early in rehearsal so he can concentrate on working on those areas.

“When you’re a non-English speaking country there is always a question of language. I try to approach it from the perspective that No. 1, music is an international language and it doesn’t matter where you go, there is always somebody that speaks a bit of English,” he said.

“So between my limited Spanish and English and a bit of French and the common music of the score, which is pretty much universal we’ll be able to get along.”

Cozens, based in Brantford, Ont., is a prolific arranger of classical music and frequent guest conductor with the Regina Symphony Orchestra, Hamilton Philharmonic and with ensembles in the U.S. and Europe.

He has scored a tapestry of Astor Piazzolla compositions for violin and orchestra, entitled Homage a Piazzolla, especially for the Cuban orchestra.

High-energy compositions

The program favoured by the Cuban group is titled La Danza (The Dance) and includes Chabrier’s España, the Fauré Pavane, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, and excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. The orchestra concertmaster is to be featured as violin soloists for two of the pieces.

Cozens' own compositions are Les Petites Danses Démoniques, with the orchestra’s principal clarinet as soloist, and Czardahora, for violin soloist and orchestra, both high-energy works that fit with a program of dance orchestral works.

“The Cuban people are very warm and outgoing and also incredibly talented. The level of musicianship is very, very high. I think it’s in their interest to do some cross-cultural projects wherever possible,” Cozens said, adding that he hopes for a longer-term relationship with classical musicians in Cuba. .