San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Maestro Bids Farewell to Costa Rica

Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn penned his Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor, better known as the “Farewell” Symphony, in 1772.

This weekend, conductor Chosei Komatsu conducts his own farewell after seven years at the helm of Costa Rica’s National Symphony Orchestra. Komatsu’s “farewell symphony” will be a program devoted to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “The Resurrection,” a work that had its Costa Rican premiere during the maestro’s first season here.

“Lots of guest conducting,” is how Komatsu, 52, describes what 2011 and beyond have in store for him. He will also be involved in a joint musical venture between China and his native Japan, and will take the baton for an orchestra in Japan, the details of neither of which he is yet at liberty to divulge.

“And I would love to come back to Costa Rica as a guest conductor,” says Komatsu, who for the past seven years has divided his time among Costa Rica, the United States and Japan.

Komatsu’s term here is perhaps most famous for the orchestra’s 2005 tour of Japan. The highly acclaimed visit took Costa Rica’s symphony to sell-out audiences in four cities that September.

The veteran conductor sat down with The Tico Times during a rehearsal break at the orchestra’s facilities at the National Music Center in the northeastern San José suburb of Moravia. He spoke about the changes that have taken place during his tenure here. Excerpts:

TT: If someone had asked you 10 years ago if a small country such as Costa Rica could support a symphony orchestra, what would you have said?

CK: I didn’t even know about the orchestra here 10 years ago. I didn’t know much about Latin America then. But I came here and found Costa Rica has a world-class orchestra and it’s very disciplined. The people here love music. I was so very impressed. But 10 years ago, I had no idea.

What do you regard as your accomplishments during your time here?

I was expected to bring even more precision to the ensemble. That’s a conductor’s job, to enforce precision. I think the courting of soloists was important too. That was not only my idea. We all aimed at that goal and we all worked hard at that, (especially) the hiring of young soloists, Costa Rican soloists.

I expanded the repertoire, including the national premieres of Richard Strauss’ “Alpine” Symphony and Mahler’s Second Symphony. I think that was about the time the musicians wanted an expansion too, and not always to do the same pieces.

What had the repertoire been like before you arrived?

Some very particular number of (compositions by) Tschaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, but not such colorful ones.

In general, how do you put together the program for a concert or a season?

We work in a three- or four-year cycle, not only thinking of next year, but what we are doing this year, and what we did the last two years. It’s a long time span. In three or four years, you want to go through a well-balanced repertoire. At the same time, you don’t want to alienate the public.

How did you get to know the public’s tastes? How long did that take?

You can introduce works people do not know. I found the public here likes to hear serious works, not superficial pieces. I was very impressed. Mahler, Schostakovich, … they’re really into it. They like large orchestration pieces. The National Theater stage is small, but we do our best. We have a big, full-size orchestra. We can do almost anything.

Has it been difficult conducting an orchestra when you are not in residence the full season?

I am here for 16 weeks, which is quite common. Sixteen weeks is a long time for a conductor and orchestra to work together. It’s important for an orchestra to have the opportunity to work with different conductors. I did my best to invite conductors who care about our ensemble.

Which conductors have inspired you personally?

When I was 4 or 5 years old, watching Herbert von Karajan inspired me to become a conductor. He looked great. He was photogenic. He was very commanding. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic like he was driving a sports car. That “car” was great.

When you go home and want to listen to something, what music do you put on?

Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Mozart, … I should stop there because there are so many.

If you had to pick just one favorite?

Like if I were on a desert island and could take just one with me? Johann Sebastian Bach, especially his cello or violin solo pieces. He is the music of God, the music of the universe.

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