San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Conductor Gerald Brown returns, reflects

From the print edition

More than 40 years ago, fresh out of the U.S. Peace Corps working with the National Symphony Orchestra in Bolivia, 29-year-old Gerald Brown was asked by Culture Minister Guido Sáenz to conduct the Costa Rican National Symphony Orchestra. When Brown arrived here in 1970, former President José Pepe Figueres asked him if $1 million would be enough to turn the country’s fledgling program into something to make the nation proud.

Brown, who had been a Fulbright scholar and a Juilliard graduate, invested in both new instruments and new talent, which involved cutting local musicians to make room for foreign ones. This caused considerable controversy and earned Brown some disdain. Meanwhile, Brown also worked with Sáenz to start the country’s National Youth Symphony Orchestra. 

His overhaul had impact during his years as director and beyond his tenure. In the past year, after more than a decade of living outside Costa Rica, a now 70-year-old Brown has had the chance to revisit the orchestra he set in motion. In an interview with The Tico Times, the gifted conductor reflects on the past, compares it with the present and shares hopes for the future of Costa Rica’s National Symphony Orchestra.

TT: How did you feel returning after so much time away?

GB: It’s been very exciting for me.  It was like returning home. I’ve lived many chapters of my life in Costa Rica. When I think of Costa Rica I think of the most joyous moments of my life.

What was the symphony like when you arrived more than 40 years ago?

At that time, the National Symphony was an orchestra that was part-time and had rehearsals in the evening after everyone finished work. I could see there were many fine musicians in the orchestra, but there was another segment which had not had complete training.

What was your reaction?

You just have to decide, “Now what has to be done?” You can take that group and try to develop it, or you can do something more radical to release a number of people and give them a severance notice.

What course of action did you take?

We continued with 18 Costa Rica musicians, the finest musicians Costa Rica had. And then we contracted 18 foreign musicians. It was very dramatic because a lot of people had to leave the orchestra. It became a very controversial and uncomfortable situation. A year later we started with the Youth Program.

How did you justify bringing in so many outsiders?

I just knew if we could get some good people in to pair with the great talent Costa Rica had, then we could create a new beginning. If you bring a foreigner in just to take a professional job, and that person stays for several years and then leaves, they leave a hole. So, all foreigners who came, as part of their contract, were teachers of the Youth Symphony. We had a philosophy that the whole project had to produce the future generation of Costa Rican musicians, and we held true to that.

How did you attract talented musicians to Costa Rica?

It was just incredible. Usually you have to post the openings and send letters soliciting musicians’ resumes and tape recordings, but in the case of Costa Rica, they asked me where the best musicians might be found. I mentioned the countries, institutions and cities and immediately they were preparing the reservations to do live auditions at those places. You want results? That’s the way to get results. 

When did you start to see results?

It took about 12 months. Everything got turned around when we had the first presentation of the National Youth Symphony. That was the first crop of kids who started out from zero, you know, one plus one is two with their instruments. At that point, most of the opposition, if not all of the opposition, melted away because they could see that the end result was to produce a national symphony that was made up of 100 percent Costa Ricans.

What was the strategy for teaching that first crop of youthful musicians?

In so many places in the world you would have woodwind specialists who would teach flute and oboe and clarinet and kazoo, and you’d have a string specialist who would have to be teaching the violin, viola, cello and string bass. In our case, we had specialized teachers for each instrument.

How have those early successes carried over into the present?

When I conducted the young soloists competition winners on a recent visit, I noticed they were all students of the kids that began studying with the first generation of musicians. We’ve come full circle. 

There are Costa Ricans now who are professionally playing or teaching in Germany, Spain, the United States. When I first came to Costa Rica, the highest title you could have in musical performance was a master’s degree, and now we have musicians in Costa Rica getting a second doctorate.

Did you enjoy your time here?

I just think of my schedule. Much of the year was a seven-day week, and I don’t remember ever returning home tired. It supplied me with energy because everything seemed to be working so well. It was very exciting.

How would you classify the Costa Rican government’s commitment to its  orchestra?

It’s huge and symbolic. 

Many times in life, you teach and you plant the seeds, but nothing sprouts because you’ve got to tend the garden. It’s like growing banana or growing coffee; you’ve got to take care of musicians. 

There are a number of other countries that have taken me to implement the same philosophy as Costa Rica, but many times they just pay lip service and only provide a minimal amount of resources. You need continuity over decades. Other places have started similar things and they came to naught.

What does a good symphony program do for Costa Rica?

No. 1, it provides Costa Rica with great music. It’s also good for the self-esteem of a society. When you consider what’s happening in Central and South America, things are working well in only a number of countries. The National Symphony shows the aspiration Costa Rica has. 

How can Costa Rica ensure that the program continues?

The danger is complacency could enter in. There has to be a constant evaluation and open-mindedness to make any corrections that need be. As an institution, you can never come to the conclusion that everything is  fine and put it on autopilot.

Gerald Brown will be returning to Costa Rica in June for the final event of the 40th anniversary of the Youth and Culture Ministry. The event will feature a large mega-orchestra compiled of generations of Costa Rican symphonic musicians.

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