Accordion champ to conductor: Hamilton man leads Cuban orchestra

Charles Cozens has traveled worldwide to conduct many different orchestras.

Charles Cozens remembers Hamilton as a kickoff to his career

Charles Cozens calls his time in Cuba a "fascinating experience." (Courtesy Francisnet Diaz Rondon/Estudio 54)

Charles Cozens started out a teenage accordian champion. Now he's an award winning, internationally recognized composer who recently became the first Canadian to guest conduct an orchestra in Cuba.

This spring he led Cuba's Villa Clara Symphony Orchestra, the latest stop in an intinerant musical career that has given him opportunity around the world.

 "It was a fascinating experience," Cozens said. "Being around all of those people. They're very warm, they're very very kind."

He was in Cuba for 10 days, spending that time working with the musicians, conducting a performance, and brushing up on his Spanish.

Ten days of rehearsal is unusual, Cozens says — in North America you would be lucky to get two or three days.

"The best part for me was working with the orchestra," he said. "The orchestra was a bit on the younger side, composed of a lot of graduates from the music schools in Havana, particularly the Superior Institute of Art … I found them to be very keen to learn, especially this quite a bit of new repertoire for them which was quite difficult."

Coming Home

Cozens has also conducted many orchestras closer to home, traveling across Canada to work with different ensembles and artists — most recently appearing in Milton for a guest performance.

He says a Hamilton concert is possible for the near future, but has not been in recent talks with the local philharmonic.

"I have guest conducted them several times, at least 15 times," Cozens said, adding he hasn't been back recently due to many projects on the go. "It certainly would be nice to do something in Hamilton, and that may come up in discussion a little bit later this year."

Hamilton as a launching pad

Cozens' first instrument as he was growing up in Hamilton was the accordion. He won the overall Canadian Accordion Championship two years in a row and then placed in the top 10 of the World Accordion Championships.

He then shifted from the accordion to the piano before attening the University of Toronto and the prestigious Berklee College of Music — but he still remembers the role Hamilton played in his success.

"The first symphony show that I ever wrote was commissioned by the Hamilton Philharmonic … that was a major start for me at the time." Cozens also helped with an outreach program for students organized by the local philharmonic, going into schools to play piano in concerts with other members of the orchestra. 

"Its things like that that help build your career," Cozens said. "You don't forget things like that."

Cozens is writing music, guest conducting orchestras and traveling across Canada this year, with no plans to retire anytime soon.

"I'm very very privileged to be doing something as my job, as my occupation, that I love to do," Cozens said. "I always knew from when I was young that I was going to be a professional musician."