HAVANA, CUBA – The concert was over, but the music would not stop.
The Minnesota Orchestra rode a heat wave of goodwill toward dawn Sunday after concluding two nights of historic concerts in the Cuban capital. 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.
It was a release, of sorts. 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.
There had been official receptions, dinners, educational visits, rehearsals and concerts that sold out the 2,086-seat Teatro.
Now it was time to relax.
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. Dave Williamson sat in on electric bass, Peter Kogan on drums and James Romain on saxophone.
And there on the left side of the stage was a pale but happy Finn wailing away on his clarinet. 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. It has been a beautiful experience.”
Vänskä would agree. 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.”
Two kinds of history
Vänskä clearly felt the historic nature of this trip on the terms of international diplomacy. 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.
“I think what we are doing is continuing that history, what they started 85 years ago,” he said.
Musicians had difficulty picking out single highlights from the trip. Clarinetist Tim Zavadil zeroed in on the playing of the two national anthems, “sharing that moment of appreciation.”
Bassoonist Chris Marshall recalled a girl at the high school.
“A student came up and in this passionate, emotional English, told me, ‘When your group played, it came to my heart,” Marshall said.
The beat goes on
For bassist Kate Nettleman, a highlight was the scene that developed after the Havana Cafe jam. Once the club had broken up about 1:30 a.m. 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. Rum and cigars lubricated the gathering, and two groups kept the music going.
“There was such a sense of demystifying people on this trip,” Nettleman said.
Principal trumpet Manny Laureano wound up on the shore also and found a comrade in arms.
“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. And he said, ‘You don’t play the music, you just let it out of yourself.’”
With the bongos and guitars at their loudest, Laureano blew the music out of his soul for several minutes of “Guantanamera.”
“It was the greatest trumpet lesson I’ve ever had,” he said Sunday afternoon.
Laureano said that his wish now is that the Minnesota Orchestra logo would now reflect more than just an identification with its home state.
“I hope after this trip, that the logo would say ‘World Orchestra,’ ” he said. “We are an orchestra that belongs to the entire world.”