National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba to make belated South Florida debut in West Palm Beach
They travel in two buses, with an espresso machine on board to supply Cuban coffee as they drive to engagements in Kansas City, Buffalo and Ames, Iowa.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba arrived in the United States in mid-October to begin a 20-city tour taking them across the Midwest and down the east coast, closing with concerts Nov. 10-11 in West Palm Beach. It is the first visit to the United States for the 75-member ensemble, and while cultural exchanges between the two countries are still not exactly routine, the tour hasn’t generated the controversy a similar venture would have created a decade or two ago.
“Members of the orchestra are definitely enjoying the tour,” said the orchestra’s music director, Enrique Pérez-Mesa, speaking by telephone through an interpreter, as the buses approached New York City for a concert a few days before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. “All they have been seeing is very warm hospitality from the people. It has been great to be able to communicate with the music and with the art, which isn’t the language of any government or any kind of political thing.”
Escaping politics is easier today than a few years ago. When the popular Cuban salsa band Los Van Van performed in Miami in 1999, they ran into thousands of anti-Castro protesters hurling eggs, bottles and insults, as fifty police officers in riot gear attempted to keep protesters and fans apart. When the group returned in 2010, the crowd of protesters shrank to a tenth its previous size and remained peaceful as 4,000 fans filed into the James L. Knight Center.
“It’s not that big a deal anymore with the Cuban-American community, as long as they don’t come here and play revolutionary songs, which they’re not going to do,” said Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “The people-to-people exchanges I think begins to break down some of the barriers that have existed for over 53 years. It’s been silly that unfortunately a minority of Cuban-Americans still oppose the idea of people-to-people exchange. Forget about the government. Don’t talk about Fidel, don’t talk about Raúl. We need to talk about the people.”
Such interactions between the people of Cuba and the United States give Cubans the opportunity to see with their own eyes that the United States is not the evil empire they’ve heard about from their government’s propaganda, he said. “If they come here to the United States and exchange just musical background with our people and hopefully interact with some of our society—forget government—I think that would be great,” he said. “They can go back with a much more positive attitude about the United States.”
Some hard-line Cuban-Americans reject the concept of people-to-people exchanges, seeing tours by dancers, soccer teams, salsa bands and symphony orchestras as attempts by a tyrannical regime to bolster its own legitimacy.
“I don’t see how we can be supportive of something that is just to soften the image of a 53-year-old dictatorship,” said Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a prominent anti-Castro talk show host on Miami’s Radio Mambí and founding member of the Cuban Liberty Council. “I don’t care if I’m called extremist. I will be an extremist because I’m not going to forget what is happening in Cuba.
“I’m not going to forget the women who are beaten in the streets. Women who are sent to prison because they walk peacefully holding a flower and asking for the release of political prisoners. That is the reality of Cuba. It’s not this whole thing about art and culture.”
Sharon McDaniel, Regional Arts Programming associate of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, said the center’s managers discussed the possibility of a negative reaction from the public. “It’s absolutely something we considered,” she said. “But we also talked to people in the Cuban community here, and they were thrilled with the idea. So, yes, there may be some people who are not happy, because Castro is still in power. But I think, in general, they’ll be welcomed with open arms.”
Founded in 1960, the orchestra has toured Russia, Poland, Spain, Peru, Mexico, Argentina and other countries. Among the conductors who have led the ensemble are Thomas Beecham, Sergiu Celibidache, Leopold Stokowski and Bruno Walter. Soloists have included Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Andres Segovia and Isaac Stern. The orchestra’s conductor says the tour is simply in keeping with the orchestra’s long tradition of touring and performing the classics, with no agenda beyond that.
“This tour is literally, 100 percent musical and cultural and historical,” Pérez-Mesa said. “It’s not attached to any kind of a political thing. “Actually all we have been doing is thanks to both of the governments because they made a big collaboration. All we are doing is showing to the audience in the United States the very high professional level of our musicians playing music from classical to our Cuban music the same way orchestras in the United States are doing it.”
Leonid Fleishaker, whose World Touring Entertainment was one of the tour’s organizers, said he became aware of Cuba’s strong classical tradition as a violin student in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, where the close ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union attracted many musicians from the island. Since coming to the United States, Fleishaker has assembled a roster of clients from the old East Bloc, including the Red Star Red Army Chorus, Moscow City Ballet and Lezginka Dance Company of Daghestan.
Now that relations with the United States have thawed a bit, he thought this would be a good time to bring the Cuban orchestra here. He contacted the pianist Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, a Cuba-born musician who performed the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with the orchestra at the age of 12, and now lives in Minneapolis and helped establish the initial contacts with the orchestra.
“We decided together that it was really overdue to bring some talent from Cuba, and politically it became easier to get work visas for Cuban musicians,” Fleishaker said. “The whole relationship between Cuba and the U.S. was a little bit easier.”
Reactions to the tour were extremely positive, he said. “Presenters are excited, the media is excited,” he said. “Many performances are close to selling out, that’s a good indication that people would like to see Cuban musicians on the stage and enjoy their performances.”
The tour steers clear of Miami, the heart of the nation’s Cuban-American community and center of anti-Castro sentiment, even though the orchestra will perform in Daytona Beach, St. Augustine, Fort Pierce, St. Petersburg, Naples and West Palm Beach. Asked why the orchestra was not performing in Miami, Fleishaker said, “That’s a good question and a lot of people ask me this question. To be honest with you, no particular reason.
“To the best of my knowledge there was a kind of itinerary complication, you know, that we couldn’t get the right kind of a venue available on the right kind of a date because it was difficult to coordinate everything. A lot of different things go into producing a tour and sometimes it’s not up to us to place a concert wherever we want to.”
The Adrienne Arsht Center confirmed that tour organizers contacted them about including the downtown Miami venue on their U.S. tour. Executive vice-president Scott Shiller said the center passed, however, because their 2012-13 classical series is centered on “America’s National Treasures” and that booking the Cuban orchestra “is not consistent with the artistic vision of the season.”
At their concerts Nov. 10 and 11 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, the orchestra will perform a mix of Cuban, European and American music. They will play classics like Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and Violin Concerto, with soloist Ilmar Gavilán, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5. They will play Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. They will play Malagueña and La Comparsa by Ernesto Lecuona, the renowned Cuban composer of film, stage and instrumental music who left the country after the revolution and strongly opposed the Castro regime. They will play a tribute to Lecuona for piano and orchestra by Nachito Herrera, the pianist who helped organize the tour and will perform the work with the orchestra. And they will play works by two contemporary Cuban composers, Guido López-Gavilán, who will be present to conduct his Guaguancó, and Jorge López Marín.
“We are just presenting the orchestra to play music and to have people feel happy and forget all their problems and their troubles when they start to listen to this Cuban orchestra playing, from the very classical to the very Cuban,” Herrera said. “We want to bring a little bit of this Cuban feeling, this Cuban coffee, this Cuban food, the rice, the beans, the pork, and that’s what we want to do. We want to make them even dance when they come to see the orchestra. Why not? Because it’s the orchestra from Cuba, which everybody knows basically 80 percent of the styles of Cuban music are creating to dance.”
For the Cuban government, the tour carries the risk that members of the orchestra will defect, an option exercised by numerous baseball players, actors, dancers, musicians and others allowed to temporarily leave the country. The regime’s primary weapon against would-be defectors lies in the vulnerability of their families, said Gomez, of the University of Miami.
“It’s a very tenuous position for some of these people that defect because their families can lose their jobs, they can lose benefits, they can even lose their housing, and I’ve seen that over the years,” he said. “That’s the kind of culture of fear that the Cuban society lives under today. They harass them and send these people to throw eggs and tomatoes at their houses.”
The Cuban government recently relaxed some travel restrictions, but Gomez said those with the likeliest chance to take trips outside the country will remain the elites, such as artists, sports stars and musicians, where the opportunity for favorable publicity is higher and the government believes the risk of defection is lower. The average person in Havana may not be able to leave the country to visit relatives in Hialeah, but the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba will still be able to make tours.
“Particularly now that Raúl Castro has announced that Cubans can travel, I can guarantee you not every regular Cuban will be able to travel,” he said. “The government will decide who can travel. Now if the entire violin section stays in Kansas City, then he’s got a problem.”
The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba performs Nov. 10 and 11 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. Kravis.org, 800-572-8471