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Two nights with the Minnesota Orchestra in Cuba: Powerful performances engender a palpable unity of spirit

“The moment that really captured everything … was when we played both national anthems together. That crystallized everything we hoped to accomplish,” said personnel manager Kris Arkis.

Flutist Iya Mézenova, who plays with Cuba’s National Orchestra: “I can’t fully put it into words. That that music, that performance was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.”
Photo by Scott Chamberlain

HAVANA — I don’t quite remember the last time I witnessed an actual media scrum at a classical concert. But there it was. On Friday evening, the Minnesota Orchestra led by Osmo Vänskä gave the first performance in Cuba by a major American orchestra since President Barack Obama announced a new opening in U.S.-Cuban relations. It was an Event.

Right from the beginning it was clear we were witnessing something of historical importance. I lost count of how many photographers were there, desperately trying to get that historic shot. Other media were grabbing concertgoers, musicians, even the vendors outside. It wasn’t just the Cuban and Americans who were caught up in the spectacle; the BBC had been shooting video footage, and colleagues from all over Latin America, and even Finland, were on hand. Dignitaries were out in force.

A packed hall was rippling with excitement that this huge cultural exchange was really going to happen. The sense of excitement was palpable, along with a sense that something remarkable was about to unfold — that a new era was beginning right there and then.

It would be nearly impossible to review such a concert; given all the extramusical activities, it would be rather like trying to review a birthday party. Nevertheless, I’d like to share a few thoughts to give a sense of occasion.

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Even before the orchestra began playing, the crush of photographers was nearly overwhelming; in those hushed moments of opening silence, it sounded as though we were getting a drumroll on a snare drum. Perhaps it would have been better for Vänskä to open the concert by simply playing a C-major chord for several minutes for everyone to get their shot before diving into the main program.

Instead, Vänskä opened with Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture. It was a testament to Vänskä and the orchestra members that despite the circus going on around them (including one videographer who actually went on the stage to film the cellos and basses) that they pulled off a magnificent performance. The work tells a tale of personal heroism in the face of adversity, and was a perfect curtain-opener; in the Minnesota Orchestra’s hands it was hugely dramatic, with the musicians attacking their instruments with almost theatrical intensity. The audience went wild.

That same intensity fueled the entire program, and indeed grew stronger as the evening went on. This wasn’t empty showboating for a new crowd, but a deeply committed performance that demanded you paid attention to the music, and not just the media circus. Together, Vänskä and the orchestra performed with incredible passion and drive, as if the entire future of Cuban-American relations were riding on the success of this one, single concert. It was a joy to hear, and to watch the audience fall under its spell.

For me, one of the great highlights of the concert was the second work on the program, Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy.” This work is … well, odd. Besides the orchestra, there is a piano soloist, and in the final climactic moments, a choir that sings about the glory of music. Adding it to the program provided an opportunity for Cuban artists — pianist Frank Fernandez and a combined choir made up of the Coro Nacional de Cuba and Coro Vocal Leo — to join the performance.

The inspirational singing of the choruses was incredibly powerful. I had a chance to work with them earlier, when we first arrived in Cuba, and was told by many in the group that they had not sung the work before. In fact, they were relatively unfamiliar with Beethoven’s idiosyncratic vocal writing. But that hardly made a difference — Cuba is such an inherently musical place that the singers quickly took to it and made it their own. They gave a thrilling performance of a challenging, problematic work. It wasn’t a “we’re-just-happy-to-be-here” performance, but a deeply committed one — all based on a single rehearsal with the orchestra.

The combination of an American orchestra and a Cuban choir performing a work about the power of music wasn’t just musically right, but emotionally right.

And so to the second half. Somewhat hilariously, as the intermission ended, an announcer addressed the crowd to remind us all that the taking of photographs in the hall was strictly forbidden. I believe we can safely say that ship had already sailed.

The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the mighty “Eroica.” There were so many reasons to include this work on the program. It’s a nice nod to history, as it was the featured work of the orchestra’s first tour to Cuba in 1929. It’s hugely dramatic, too. But there was more: In Cuba, with the rhythmic vitality of Cuba’s popular music fresh in our ears, something else was clear — the work danced. It was a crazy dance to be sure, as Beethoven created a slightly asymmetrical dance that keeps throwing surprises at the listener, but it very much danced. The work was propelled by sharply defined rhythms that gathered in intensity right to the work’s conclusion.

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It was a riveting performance, and I was struck by how much more intently the crowd was listening — it was completely unfazed as a lone bat swooped down and buzzed the orchestra at (appropriately) the end of the funeral march.

The concert was a huge hit with the local crowd, some of whom had no idea what to expect. Alejandro Quiros remarked that he and his wife showed up primarily for a rare chance to see an American orchestra, but once the music started, he became a huge fan. “I don’t know much about Beethoven’s music, but I know good music when I hear it. When I was listening, I said to myself … yes, there is the rhythm. There is the voice of song. And there is the passion. Their music had it all. It was phenomenal.” 

Flutist Iya Mézenova, who plays with Cuba’s National Orchestra, was overwhelmed by the concert experience. “I can’t fully put it into words. That that music, that performance was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The sound was lush, full, and deep, so wonderfully dense and grand. But then in an instant, it was so ephemeral and still, and if you reached out to try and touch it, it was gone. I can’t describe it. It’s like trying to describe the touch of sunlight on your skin. They have given me so, so much.”

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But Vänskä and the orchestra were just getting started.

On Saturday night, they returned to the Teatro Nacional for another concert — this one given over entirely to dance music. With the first concert out of the way, the second night was much more … playful. Everyone was more relaxed, and ready to hear some great music. The pomp and weight of the first night were gone, but the same electricity remained. Well, electricity and quite a few photographers.

But then something remarkable happened.

Vänskä took the podium to hearty and expectant applause. But rather than turn back to the orchestra, he gestured for the audience to rise to its feet. All of us were perplexed, and for a moment no one moved. But then the orchestra began playing … the Cuban national anthem.

And bedlam erupted.

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The crowd roared to its feet and began singing in full voice — voices to shake the theater to its foundation.

“Marvelous!” shouted the man behind me to his family when it was over. “I cannot believe it! Bravo!”

But another surprise came fast on the first one’s heels; after a polite moment to acknowledge the applause, Vänskä led the orchestra in the Star-Spangled Banner. Now the much smaller contingent of Americans broke out into song. The Cubans whipped around looking for the singers, with enormous grins and waves. It was magical, and it took a moment for it all to sink in: An American orchestra had played both anthems. Together. I don’t know if mere words can describe the power of that simple gesture, and many audience members were moved to tears.

It wasn’t just the Cubans who were moved. A group of exchange students from two Minnesota colleges just happened to be in Havana as part of their program, and had secured last-minute tickets to the concert. All remarked that hearing dual anthems was incredibly powerful and moving. Alex Wald, a student from St. John’s University, later explained, “It was incredible to witness that in person. The Cubans were so honored by that, and then to have that followed by our own anthem? I never, ever thought I’d hear such a thing. I got absolute chills.”

The rest of the program shared the same electricity. Alejandro García Caturla’s “Danzon” kicked off the program, to the wide approval of the Cuban audience. The “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” which closed out the first half, also received hearty applause. But perhaps the real stand-out performance was from Sergei Prokofiev’s music to “Romeo and Juliet.” Ana Fuentes commented that although the “West Side Story” dances were great, it was the Prokofiev that brought her to the concert. “I wanted to see a great American orchestra play “Romeo and Juliet.” I’ve loved ballet my whole life and I’ve been dreaming for a chance to hear this music live.”

The orchestra delivered. Osmo Vänskä’s arrangement follows the narrative arc of the story, capturing the growing tension and drama as the story races to its tragic end. The orchestra captured that drama as they played. The “Tybalt’s Funeral Cortege” movement marked the emotional turning point of the story. It erupted into snarling hatred — with the musicians physically attacking their instruments to convey the fury of the moment. The audience gave the movement a vigorous round of applause, even though the work as a whole hadn’t ended.

But as savage as that movement was, the following movement was gripping in pathos and dreamy innocence. When the celesta began playing, a woman behind me gasped and said to her neighbor, “That sound!  I … I can see her. It’s so delicate, like it’s the fall of her hair!” The finale was riveting, and the crowd roared its approval in a massive ovation.

Not wanting to let this magical evening end, Vänskä quickly tossed off three encores. The first were Cuban dances (“Danza lucumi” and “Malagueña), and had the crowd eating out of the orchestra’s hand. “Malagueña,” in particular, is a Cuban standard, and many people were dancing in their seats. Far better for me was when Osmo closed out the night with the Finnish “Säkkijärven Polka.” One might have thought that such a thoroughly Nordic piece might have baffled the Cubans — but again, they understand dance. As the beat got started, the woman in front of me — who had merely swayed some during “Malagueña” — swung her arms up and threw herself into the music.

I guess music really is an international language.

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When all was over, the orchestra’s personnel manager, Kris Arkis, summed up the performance brilliantly: “The concerts were amazing, and so overwhelming. The moment that really captured everything that happened was at the start of the second concert when we played both national anthems together. That crystallized everything we hoped to accomplish. The rest of the evening featured Romeo and Juliet music about warring factions who come together in tragedy — the Sharks/Jets and Capulets/Montagues. But by performing here, we flipped the script. When we performed the two anthems, we brought Cubans and Americans together in beauty. We brought both sides together with music.”

They sure did.