Photos by Nate Ryan, courtesy of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra.
A youth orchestra sparked by the Minnesota Orchestra's historic trip to Havana made its own debut in Cuba last week.
Twenty five young American musicians trekked to Havana to play with some 50 Cubans in the Cuban American Youth Orchestra. Eleven members of the Minnesota Orchestra tagged along, mentoring the musicians, ages 18 to 24, as they prepared for the youth orchestra's first pair of concerts.
They rehearsed in the heat. They premiered two works by Cuban composers. They jammed, then they jammed some more.
"They didn't want to say goodbye at the end of the night," said Rena Kraut, the youth orchestra's executive director.
Kraut, a clarinetist, dreamed up the Cuban American Youth Orchestra, or CAYO, after touring Cuba with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2015 as it became the first U.S. symphony orchestra to perform there as relations between the countries warmed.
Since then, those relations have cooled.
Kraut had envisioned dozens of young, Cuban musicians traveling to the United States to work with musicians here. But the Trump administration reversed some of the Obama administration's easing of restrictions, shuttering the visa office at the U.S. embassy in Havana and making that travel impossible.
Still, U.S. musicians could go to them. As part of the tour, organized by Classical Movements, the youth orchestra performed at the Teatro Nacional in Havana as part of the Cubadisco Festival, which the Minnesota Orchestra played during its 2015 tour.
"The gesture of Americans coming to Cuba is extremely important right now," Kraut said. "The optimism from before is waning. For us to be there during this time is a symbol they can hang onto.
"They can see and hear that they're not forgotten and that our government doesn't speak for all of us."
The tour made clear that the two countries' young people, in particular, "have a desire to open up and take and get to know one another," she said, "to share music and play together."
The musicians made do with less-than-ideal conditions. They held the first rehearsal in an impromptu room without air conditioning -- "in the most Cuba of all venues in the city," Kraut laughed. "Very rustic, let's say. It was a real culture shock right away.
"They dove right in."
The U.S. musicians leaned on the Cuban players to get a feel for the rhythms underlying the music, said Alastair Witherspoon, a 22-year-old violinist. They subdivided everything, they found the feel.
"For them, they didn't have to think about it," he said. "It just flowed out of them. It took us a little bit to get in the groove."
Witherspoon, who grew up in Minneapolis and studied music at the University of Minnesota, said that the trip "holds a special place in my heart."
"It was incredible being able to meet and work with so many musicians -- people who are just a joy to be around."
He was struck by the difficult living conditions in Cuba, worsened by recent shortages, and by the musicians' positivity, warmth and generosity. The Minnesotans gifted their Cuban counterparts sheet music, reeds and mouthpieces. More general supplies, too.
The Cuban musicians offered the Minnesotans their own gifts. "I did not expect that at all," Witherspoon said. Tucked in his luggage were wooden figurines, a tiny maraca, a cigar.
On his trip home, he chatted via Facebook with the new friends he made. About music, but also about other things.
Kraut has seen the Facebook posts, she said. They're evidence that dozens more people from both countries are invested in the future of this youth orchestra she dreamed up four years ago.
"I'm very gratified that the organization is not just in the hands of several of us," she said, "but belongs to so many more hearts and hands now."
James Ross, music director of CAYO, leads the youth orchestra in an outdoor performance. Photos by Nate Ryan, courtesy of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra.