The adage that politics divides while music unites was evident at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in October, when the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba played during its first-ever tour of the United States.
“It was a dream 10 years in the making,” orchestra director Enrique Perez Mesa said after rocking the packed house on Saturday, Oct. 27, according to tavora.com. “We have been thrilled by the American audience, which not only has an appreciation for the classical pieces we’re playing as part of the program, but also seems to know the Cuban classics we’re playing. It’s very gratifying.” The center is located on the campus of Lehman College.
The orchestra was founded in 1960, the year after Fidel Castro’s revolution ousted a dictatorship and established a communist regime. For most of the next five decades, the United States tried to freeze out Castro, but there has been a mild thaw under President Obama. The maiden U.S. tour of the internationally known orchestra is the result.
This is nowhere more evident than in the appearance of Havana-born jazz pianist Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, who had wowed Cuban audiences as a 12-year-old prodigy before defecting to the United States. Herrera, who performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the orchestra, now lives in St. Paul, Minn., tours with his band Cubanisimo and teaches at Minnesota’s McPhail Center for Music. He played a critical role in bringing the orchestra to the United States.
“I am living a dream being able to play with all the symphony orchestras of the world,” he told Florida’s Naples News. “And now, doing it in this country with the orchestra of my country is the height of that dream.”
What’s more, in December Herrera will appear with the orchestra in Havana. “We’re taking this opportunity to open a window that government has given to Cubans, and we hope it’s the beginning of real cultural exchange between Cuba and the U.S.,” he told the Naples News.
According to a review by Joseph Dalton in the Albany Times Union, Herrera’s “approach to the ‘Rhapsody’ was highly individual, going all over the place from fragmented and choppy to lyric and sweeping. In three different passages he had the orchestra players add finger snaps. If nothing else, the performance proved that the beloved ‘Rhapsody’ is still a living work, no masterpiece set in stone.”
As for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, The Times Union’s critic wrote: “Maybe the players wanted to prove their mettle, which they largely did. Yet the symphony’s emphasis on forceful rhythms somehow tied in with the rest of the program’s more danceable beats.” All in all, he added, “It was impossible to sit completely still in your seat during such vibrant displays.”
Guest conductor Guido López-Gavilán also led the 75-member orchestra at Lehman in Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5,” George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” and Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña,”
Lecuona fled Cuba for West Tampa after Castro seized power, and he opposed the revolution until his death in 1963 at age 68. Nevertheless, Lecuona is revered in Cuba. “We never do anything against his decision to move to the United States, as far as I know,” Herrera told the Tampa Times. “All piano students at the Cuban music conservatories play Lecuona.”
The orchestra used two buses and a truck to tour more than 6,000 miles through 21 cities, from Missouri and Iowa to upstate New York and six venues in Florida. Perez said he adjusted the program slightly to fit audience demographics and preferences. At Lehman, whose audience was primarily Latino, encores included a medley of Cuban favorites, including “Guantanamera” and “Manicero.”
The National Orchestra of Cuba has been instrumental in developing and introducing Cuban and Latin American music to the international classical music community. It also covers a vast symphonic and chamber repertoire ranging from baroque to contemporary music.
International tours have taken the orchestra to Russia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Spain, Peru and Argentina. More than 100 guest conductors have included such titans of the past as Sir Thomas Beecham, Pierre Monteaux, Leopold Stokowski and Igor Stravinsky. Acclaimed international soloists have included Marian Anderson, Claudio Arrau and Jorge Bolet.