Hugo Valverde ’16 started playing the French horn as a seven-year-old in rural Costa Rica. Last year, he landed one of the most coveted positions in classical music: playing for the MET Orchestra in New York City.
“The MET is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Valverde said.
Seizing opportunities is nothing new for Valverde. When he decided to learn an instrument, he discovered he was too small to play his first choice, the tuba. His next choice was the saxophone, but other students had already taken all the music school’s saxophones. The school director suggested the French horn, and Valverde—despite not even knowing what the instrument looked like—accepted.
That gumption led him to Lynn University, then to Rice University and now to the MET—all by the age of 22.
“I didn’t have any doubt that Hugo would do well,” said Gregory Miller, distinguished artist in residence in French horn at Lynn’s Conservatory of Music. “He was always pursuing opportunities.”
Valverde learned about Lynn as a high school senior performing with the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica. Miller was visiting the orchestra to teach a master class, and Valverde asked him for a private lesson.
“He told me he had a half hour only,” Valverde said. “It ended up being a two-hour lesson.”
Miller saw how earnestly Valverde wanted to improve, how genuinely interested he was in being a professional musician.
“I told him he needed to come to the U.S. to study,” Miller said.
It was already April. Valverde had no visa and had not taken the language exam, TOEFL. Costa Rica had none scheduled. So, after cramming for several weeks to tighten his English skills, Valverde boarded a bus by himself for a 12-hour trip to Panama to take the exam. He passed. Two weeks before Lynn’s fall semester started, the consulate in Costa Rica issued his visa, and Valverde bought a plane ticket.
After graduating from Lynn, Valverde auditioned for the premier French horn program in the country at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston. A year later, his visa status was coming to an end, and Valverde decided the time had come to play professionally.
“I only had a certain amount of money to spend flying to auditions, staying in hotels, paying for meals. I couldn’t afford 10 auditions. I thought, ‘Am I ready for the MET, for the top orchestra in the country?’”
The answer was yes.
The MET was unlike any other audition because the repertoire is opera, not typically played by orchestras or symphonies, and rarely taught in conservatories. Valverde knew none of the pieces. Three months of intense practice followed; then Valverde got the invitation to audition in New York.
The MET had narrowed the pool of applicants to 60 musicians for the first round. The second day, Valverde was one of seven.
Then it was down to him and one other candidate.
The MET holds blind auditions, and hopefuls perform opera excerpts from behind a screen. The panel judged only their music, without knowing their ages, genders, backgrounds or even their names. Valverde was anonymous No. 7.
He auditioned second. He played for 20 minutes, then waited alone for the results.
“And I won. I was in shock,” Valverde said. “They said, ‘Are you ok?’ Then the judges all clapped for me. I will always remember their expressions.”
The judges were a little shocked, too, because Valverde is exceptionally young for such an accomplished horn player.
Valverde’s former teachers and classmates at Lynn weren’t surprised, however.
“Everything he does is always striving for the top,” Miller said. “It’s hard to stop him when he decides he wants to do something.”