The musical devotion of Cosette Justo Valdés
Words Laura Langston
Photography Lia Crowe
It’s been said that music is the literature of the heart, and that’s certainly true for Cuban-born and -raised Cosette Justo Valdés, the new artistic director of the Vancouver Island Symphony. One of her earliest memories is hearing her mother sing.
“She always sang to me—Cuban songs, Latin American songs—she knows every song in Spanish. She sang for fun at first and then she did it professionally,” Cosette says. “And my father played guitar and taught me my first musical notes and how to read music.”
Music, says Cosette, is “in the Cuban blood.”
Given the family’s strong musical background, Cosette’s mother wanted to enroll her in a government-subsidized music boarding school, allowing her to acquire musical training along with her academics. Spots at the prestigious live-in school were limited, and entrants had to pass a rigorous talent exam. However, at the age of just eight, Cosette succeeded. It was the last time she would live at home. And when she saw her first symphony orchestra playing at the age of 18, her life path was set: she knew she wanted to be a conductor.
“Music speaks to the most elemental and essential emotions we have,” she says. “It’s also a powerful way to build bridges, and I saw conducting as a way to connect with my colleagues and also with the audience.”
After graduating in 2009 in Havana with a bachelor’s degree in orchestral conducting, Cosette became chief conductor and artistic director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Oriente (OSO) in Santiago de Cuba, directing an 80-musician ensemble for nine years. But Cosette wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Europe and learn more about conducting classical repertoire from a European perspective, although she knew leaving would be difficult.
“In Cuba, if we don’t have family outside the country, we don’t imagine how we can leave,” she says. “And until 2010, it wasn’t even possible to leave without permission from the government. But becoming a musician made it easier.”
In 2012, with the help of friends, Cosette left for Mannheim, Germany, where she enrolled in a master’s degree program, graduating in 2018. And then, Canada beckoned. In January 2019, she was hired on as assistant conductor by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
Growing up in Cuba, she knew a little about Canada. The cold weather was a given, she says, but she didn’t realize the diversity of the country until 2020. Wanting a brief break from the cold Edmonton winter, she spent several months living in Langford near Victoria. That’s when she realized Canada had everything—forests, lakes, rivers and beautiful beaches.
“I went to French Beach and China Beach. I loved the Sooke Potholes—the water was so warm and shallow—and Vancouver Island became my paradise. I fell in love with it.”
So, when she saw the posting for artistic director of the Vancouver Island Symphony, she had to apply.
“And when I won the job, not only was I thrilled to be chosen, but that’s when I realized there is a Valdes Island nearby and I felt that I had found my place…that this job was meant to be!”
A musician in her own right (she plays piano and harpsichord), Cosette is also a choral singer, but she will only sing, she says, “with others.” And that collaborative attitude extends to her new position with the Vancouver Island Symphony.
“There are so many great artists to collaborate with here, and my first goal is to get to know them both musically and personally,” she says.
That said, there are several things she’s looking forward to.
“We commission one piece every year with flutist Paolo Bortolussi in charge and this is one collaboration I’m excited for,” Cosette says, adding that the symphony is considering a musical project that would tell the origin story of Vancouver Island’s Indigenous people.
Cosette is also looking forward to February’s performance of Amor, which will feature a piece by her first conducting professor in Havana, Jorge López Marín, a man she describes as a profound inspiration on her musical path. A few weeks later, in March, Cosette will conduct Cuban Hits, featuring two guest artists she went to school with in Havana: Mayquel González on trumpet and Yaroldy Abreu on Cuban percussion.
Along with conducting for the Vancouver Island Symphony, Cosette is now resident conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta. She keeps strong ties to Cuba, visiting every year and maintaining her position as honorary artistic director of the orchestra in Santiago de Cuba. And at the time of this interview, she’d just returned from guest conducting in Thunder Bay and was about to leave to guest conduct in Sacramento and Montreal.
Music is how Cosette spreads joy—and so is cooking.
“Food is also part of my love language,” she says. “It’s very important for me to feed people.” Her specialties are some of the Cuban dishes she grew up with (arroz congrí, or rice and beans, lechón asado, or roasted pork, and ropa vieja, or shredded beef) but she’s also developed a passion for Canadian food, adapting her diet based on the meat and vegetables available here.
“I like to cook and eat healthy food and I love Canadian steak,” she says. “It’s so tender.”
Whether she’s conducting or cooking, Cosette is constantly busy, constantly on the go—and she loves it.
“Every day I wake up so grateful,” she says. “I never imagined I could be a conductor, let alone have this wonderful kind of life.”