Minnesota Orchestra wows Havana

18 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

After Thaw, Minnesota Orchestra Returns To Cuba.

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. After a palpably emotional program at the Teatro Nacional, the Minnesota contingent decamped to a Havana club — jamming and dancing with Cuban musicians who said they were very happy to play with these American visitors. For three days, the players, board members and patrons had served as cultural ambassadors, with music as their diplomatic tool in this first trip of a U.S. orchestra to Cuba after President Obama’s overture to normalize relations.

Trumpet player Chuck Lazarus led the Minnesota cadre onto the stage of Havana Cafe, next door to the Melia Cohiba hotel, where the orchestra musicians stayed. 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. Music director Osmo Vänskä riffed on “Rhapsody in Blue” and soared through several other loosely arranged numbers before returning to his seat in the club, which resembled a Planet Hollywood with a plane suspended from the ceiling and a 1950s American convertible parked amid the cocktail tables. “This trip is sending a good message about the Minnesota Orchestra,” Vänskä said in an interview shortly before Saturday’s concert. “It’s back in business and doing a very good job, and it’s a great ensemble.” Vänskä and his orchestra certainly convinced the Cuban listeners. On Saturday night, the Minnesota ensemble grabbed the audience’s heart with a surprise — the Cuban national anthem, followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The appeal to nationalism landed deeply, even behind the curtains, where Cuban stagehands dabbed tears away. “Most Cuban people think Americans don’t have an emotional side,” said Ernesto Alejandro Alvarez, a young composer who had met the musicians at his university on Thursday. “To play the anthem was a great show of respect — symbolic for this visit. 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.

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? On several occasions during the trip he mentioned the value of the school visits and a side-by-side rehearsal the orchestra held with conservatory students on Friday. “This is something I hope can continue, this collaboration with the young Cuban musicians,” he said. “I hope we can come again here and make this a regular part of our journey.” Vänskä clearly felt the historic nature of this trip on the terms of international diplomacy.

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. However, he reminded a visitor Saturday of the foray’s significance for the orchestra itself, saying he was thankful to long-ago music director Henri Verbrugghen for bringing the Minneapolis Symphony to Havana in 1929 and 1930.

Clarinetist Tim Zavadil zeroed in on the playing of the two national anthems, “sharing that moment of appreciation.” For bassist Kate Nettleman, a highlight was the scene that developed after the Havana Cafe jam. 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.

Sunday, some players followed the sound of guitars, bongos and trumpets coming from a concrete barrier along the Atlantic Ocean — across the street from the hotel. 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.

Rum and cigars lubricated the gathering, and two groups kept the music going. “He would play a song and then hand his trumpet to me and I would play,” Laureano said. “We got into a deep philosophical discussion about what music does for you. 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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