Fire and Ice: Minnesotans Join Orquesta Aragón in Havana

18 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

After Thaw, Minnesota Orchestra Returns To Cuba.

The Minnesota Orchestra plays Havana this weekend. The Minnesota Orchestra’s concert in Havana, Cuba, Friday night was greeted not only as a rare chance to hear an orchestra from overseas, but as a symbol of the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. It made little difference as more than a dozen people operating TV and still cameras worked the hall, roamed the aisles and perched on the stage, all with the aim of capturing this historic moment. The concert, the first by a large U.S. orchestra here in more than 15 years, was greeted with several standing ovations — and huge cheers when the Minnesotans teamed up with the Cuban pianist Frank Fernández and two local choirs to perform Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy.” “They played beautifully — they send you to the clouds,” Graciela Fonseca, 73, said after it ended, adding that she viewed the concert as a sign of friendship between the two nations.

More importantly, for an island as steeped in music as Cuba, this was the first major orchestra to visit since the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra toured for two days in 1999. Tickets here cost around 50 cents, with students paying only half that — part of an effort to make cultural events accessible in a country where salaries are low, said Rafael Vega, the director of the theater, which also presents ballet, concerts, plays and comedy. Even as the orchestra held its first rehearsal in the Teatro Nacional, people drifted into the theater and backstage, listening to the power of the music coming off the stage. As crowds gathered outside the theater, vendors sold cookies, chips and candy from a line of shopping carts, lending a festive, populist feel to the concert.

She was attending with Johannes Honsig-Erlenburg, president of the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation. “Culture is a very important bond between the people of these two countries, despite what happens politically,” Olompo Compas said. “It is very impressive to have them here.” The joint announcement Dec. 17 from Presidents Obama and Castro relaxing longstanding restrictions on travel and commerce launched an orchestral race: Which from the U.S. would be first to perform on the island?

One side of the plaza is dominated by an enormous metal stencil-like portrait of Che Guevara that spans several stories on the side of the Ministry of the Interior building, and the other by a monumental memorial to José Martí, who was killed fighting for Cuban independence from Spain in the 19th century. Other aspects of Friday night’s concert would have been more familiar to Minnesota audiences, or really any concert hall these days: a cellphone went off during a quiet passage in the Funeral March in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” The Minnesotans played an all-Beethoven program — not counting the sprightly Finnish polka that the orchestra’s music director, Osmo Vanska, who is from Finland, chose for an encore.

The Cuban authorities also reportedly liked that back in 1929, the first international tour of what was then the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was to Havana. The tour was designed not only to highlight the thaw between nations, but also the thaw within the orchestra: It resumed playing together only last year after a bitter labor dispute led to a lockout that silenced it for 16 months. Now the orchestra is working to recapture what was lost: Vanska, who resigned during the lockout and expressed support for the musicians, came back; Carnegie Hall concerts that were canceled have been rescheduled; and the orchestra plans to resume recording its Grammy-winning survey of Sibelius symphonies. Of course, even as it embarks on its ambitious Cuba tour, the orchestra faces challenges back home — attendance this season has dipped below the pre-lockout levels, and, though it has made up the difference through increased donations, the ensemble still has work to do to bring concertgoers and subscribers back.

As the Minnesota musicians played with students in a number of settings this week, they marveled at the high quality of their play in spite of poor instruments. The Minnesotans brought small gifts for the students, who have trouble obtaining basic items: rosin for the string players, who rarely get to change the horsehair on their bows, and mouthpieces for the brass players. Standing in the crowded lobby of the Teatro National, he said it’s worked well. “To get back together and with this amount of excitement and energy — to do something extraordinary as this, it’s just never happened before,” Smith said. “So it’s not just a matter of getting back, it’s a matter of moving beyond. Minnesota Orchestra double bass player Kathryn Nettleman says that to be in Cuba at this time, sharing music after having survived the turmoil of the labor dispute, has been the experience of a lifetime. “And I think that’s a testament to what can happen when people dream and believe and work hard together,” she says. “That’s what an orchestra is — it’s a group of people on a stage doing that.”

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