HAVANA – The gesture symbolized the entire trip.
Osmo Vänskä took the hand of pianist Frank Fernández and waved his congratulations to the Cuban National Choir after the group’s performance with the Minnesota Orchestra on Friday night.
More than 2,000 people were on their feet in the Teatro Nacional, recognizing not only the musicianship but also the poignant symbolism of American and Cuban artists performing together on Havana soil.
The orchestra flies home Sunday, having accomplished two significant diplomatic missions on its historic and whirlwind five-day visit. The 160-person Minnesota contingent won the hearts of schoolchildren, university students and music lovers with educational visits, gifts of musical supplies and concerts on Friday and Saturday night that sold out quickly to audiences eager to witness this moment.
“I thought they killed it, in a good way, as the kids say,” said NBC correspondent Harry Smith, one of several U.S. and international journalists covering the weekend’s concerts.
The trip carried the significance of being the first visit by a major U.S. orchestra since President Obama’s overture to normalize relations. “This truly is a historic point in time in U.S.-Cuban relations,” Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief U.S. diplomat in Havana, said at a reception Friday.
Second, musicians, board members and patrons used these five days in the warm charm of Havana to fall in love with each other again. The bitter fist fight of 2012-14 over the musicians’ contract now defines the orchestra less than does this historic and successful tour.
“My internal hope was that this would be good glue for us,” said Minneapolis attorney Warren Mack, who became chairman of the orchestra’s board earlier this year. “There was a catharsis to work through because both board members and musicians had felt vilified.”
Perhaps the signature moment occurred Thursday at a festive dinner in Havana’s Cathedral Square, when principal cellist Tony Ross — a key negotiator for the musicians — twirled board vice chairwoman Marilyn Carlson Nelson around the cobblestone dance floor.
It was a thank-you gesture to Carlson Nelson, who with her husband, Glen, funded the trip, but it also was a signal that tensions have eased and joy has filled the vacuum.
Mack strongly hinted in an interview that even greater change awaits the orchestra on its return home. Management has been negotiating a contract extension with musicians. Asked if a deal might be in the offing this summer, Mack indicated it could come sooner.
“We have a board meeting on the 19th,” he said, leaving the subject at that. “We are also talking with the music director and we hope to have two extensions to announce soon.”
The two-year contract that Vänskä signed after the lockout will expire next spring. By locking up longer-term deals, the orchestra can begin to plan strategically with a sense of stability.
A musical event, too
Vänskä’s interest in the trip naturally focused on the music. At a news conference Thursday, he noted that touring is part of every orchestra’s life. (“That is what we do.”) He did, however, acknowledge the intentional nature of the concert selections.
“When we come to play here, we don’t want to bring typical programs,” Vänskä said. “We want to play something that is familiar to you,” meaning the Cuban audience.
Friday, the orchestra played Beethoven in homage to the Minneapolis Symphony’s 1929 visit.
Saturday night’s concert turned into a love fest from the start. The orchestra opened with the Cuban national anthem as the audience rose and sang out. “The Star-Spangled Banner” followed, giving the Americans in the crowd a chance to clear their lungs.
“This is the first time I had heard the anthem of the United States live,” said Maura Casal. “It was a big surprise.”
Lopez Marin, a Havana composer and conductor, whispered “I have no words, I have no words” to his neighbor at the conclusion of Bernstein’s symphonic dances from “West Side Story.”
“It is an incredible experience to listen to this orchestra,” Lopez Marin said. “I think they will be back again.”
Saturday was very much a dance program, with a Danzon by Alejandro García Caturla, an early-20th century Cuban composer, the Bernstein and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet Suite.”
“Ballet is important in Cuba,” Vänskä said. “ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is one of the most beautiful ballet music ever composed.”
Saturday night ended with three encores and jubilant applause.
The concerts, and the moment, landed with great interest in Havana. There were approximately 25 cameras roaming the auditorium Friday night. Media included the New York Times, BBC, Al Jazeera America, Latin American outlets including Cuban TV, and a number of Minnesotans.
Minnesota Public Radio broadcast the concerts live. Music host Brian Newhouse said the feed was picked up by stations in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Miami.
Cuban officials were there along with DeLaurentis, head of the U.S. Special Interests Section in Havana. He attended with Swedish Ambassador Elisabeth Eklund. Austrian ambassador Gerlinde Paschinger was with Johannes Honsig-Erlenberg, president of the Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg.
“Obviously, it went over very well,” DeLaurentis said.
It certainly did with the Cubans who attended. Siomara Sanchez said the Beethoven Choral Fantasy — the piece performed with Fernandez and the Cuban National Choir — and the Eroica symphony were two of her favorite works.
“Culture is a very important bond between the people of these two countries, despite what happens politically,” said Guillermo Enrique Olompo Compas. “It is very impressive to have them here.”
The tour has been watched with interest and certainly DeLaurentis will have something to share at a May 21 meeting in Washington concerning the long trek toward normalization. American travel to Cuba could definitely ease.
“In a place like Cuba, music is such a language that an entire symphony signifies that bigger things are possible,” said Christina Tribble, cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Interests Section.
Investment, however, may hinge on changes in the economic system, such as reforms in 2010 that allowed more private enterprise.
The diplomatic effort occurring within the Minnesota Orchestra, will move more swiftly.
“The perception of the orchestra externally now is that it was courageous and nimble to put this tour together so quickly,” said Dianne Brennan, director of development. “We had to talk to each other and agree to get it done.”