The first thing Kevin Smith did was call Amy Klobuchar. Could the senator help if Smith pursued this wild idea he had in January, to take the Minnesota Orchestra to Cuba and become the first major U.S. orchestra to play there since President Obama announced his desire to normalize relations?
Klobuchar, of course, said yes. The Minnesota Democrat is leading legislation that would lift the 53-year U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. A successful trip by the orchestra — a cultural foray — could be the spear tip to help pierce political opposition.
When the orchestra plays there Friday and Saturday, the music will vibrate far beyond the walls of Havana’s Teatro Nacional.
“This trip is an example of the type of relationship we want to continue building between our people,” said Klobuchar, who visited Cuba with other senators in February. “Cubans are looking forward to more opportunities to interact with Americans.”
Legislators, business leaders, state and federal officials and Cuban-Americans are all keen to see how the historic trip works out. It is not the first time an orchestra has visited the communist nation, but it is the first in this newly friendly climate. The tour has attracted national press and international curiosity for its musical and political implications.
“We absolutely feel that we represent the state, the United States,” said violinist Aaron Janse, who was in a small advance party that went to Cuba in April. “We have a responsibility to be a bridge between the two countries.”
Neeta Helms, whose Virginia-based Classical Movements arranged the trip, said many parties in Washington, including the State Department, are well aware of the trip.
“This is the kind of musical diplomacy that has the intention of changing things,” she said.
History in Havana
In the winter of 1929, music director Henri Verbrugghen led what was then called the Minneapolis Symphony to Cuba. It was such a success that Verbrugghen brought the orchestra back the following year. Again, the acclaim was great, but several musicians took ill on the trip, and the orchestra never returned.
Smith, who took over as orchestra president after the bruising 16-month lockout that ended in February 2014, said he woke up one morning following Obama’s overture and thought it would be great if Minnesota was first to Cuba. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was known to be in the hunt, so he had to act rapidly.
With Klobuchar’s support behind him, Smith asked the musicians if they would be willing to swap out a week of vacation in May so the ensemble could go to Havana.
The players were enthusiastic for this latest bump in the orchestra’s fortunes since the lockout. Fundraising has been good, the orchestra is planning a return to recording and a trip to Carnegie Hall, and Smith has brought a new-age atmosphere of collaboration.
“For us, as a community, to get this all together speaks volumes to where the Minnesota Orchestra is,” said Janse. “All the stakeholders are extremely proud and optimistic.”
The orchestra will play two concerts that will be broadcast throughout Cuba and in Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. The repertoire includes Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”), which was part of the 1929 trip. The players will also visit a high school and a conservatory, where they will play alongside young musicians and offer feedback.
To help the orchestra maintain its goal of fiscal stability, Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband, Glen, are paying for the trip.
As co-owner and former chairman of Carlson Cos., the global hotel giant, Carlson Nelson not only represents the cultural side of the exchange — she’s an influential orchestra board member who tried to broker an end to the lockout — but also the potential for business openings to the island. Travel and tourism long have been her business and she recognizes them as a “powerful economic stimulus that would be a win for both countries.”
Carlson Nelson visited Cuba with her father, Curt Carlson, when she was 12 and she said it has been a “50-year frustration to see others go there to travel and build there.”
She and her husband will be part of about 30 donors, board members and community supporters who will accompany the orchestra as “cultural ambassadors.” They will visit museums, attend the concerts and visit with artists at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Kathleen Motzenbecker, executive director of the Minnesota Trade Office, said there is great value in these endeavors because they demystify Cuba and “set the stage as economies open up.” She likened it to “pingpong diplomacy,” when the exchange of table tennis players helped thaw relations between the United States and China in 1971.
Logistically, this is unlike any other tour for the orchestra — primarily in the short amount of time it had to get ready. Just last week, the orchestra was cleared to make a direct flight to Havana. Also, a portable band shell was found at Champlin Park High School. That will be packed along to aid the acoustics in the Teatro Nacional.
The orchestra also had to get permission to bring instruments containing such materials as Brazilian rosewood, elephant ivory and tortoise shell. Those substances are not to be transported outside national boundaries as part of new protections intended to thwart poaching.
The Minnesota brand
This trip will help establish the Minnesota brand in Cuba. The orchestra made hundreds of small pins bearing the name Minnesota Orchestra to hand out to people they meet.
“That really was one of the objectives,” Glen Nelson said of his interest in funding the tour. “It gets visibility for our state.”
Others also are watching.
“If our state representatives are smart, they will latch onto this and make some business capital,” said Dick Cisek, former president of the orchestra and now a member of the League of American Orchestras. He will go to Cuba in November as part of a group including the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum.
“Let the politicians in Cuba know that this is a state ready to do business.”
Sen. Dick Cohen, perhaps the greatest champion of the arts at the Minnesota Legislature, agrees with Cisek: “I think it’s going to bring huge attention to the orchestra itself and the state of Minnesota.”
If any one person represents the Minnesota brand in Cuba, it is Tony Oliva. The 1964 American League rookie of the year grew up in Pinar del Rio, west of Havana, and has remained ever since with the Minnesota Twins.
Smith asked Oliva to come along but he declined because of the tour’s brevity and the fact that it’s baseball season. “My family would want to see me and there’s not enough time for that,” he said. “If you go again, go in November for two weeks. I’ll be there.”
Oliva returns to his home country every winter and wishes more people could do the same, without having to seek restrictive licenses.
“It was time,” he said of Obama’s initiative. “My only question was, ‘What took them so long?’ ”
Will Havana residents know the Minnesota brand? Oliva tapped his Twins cap.
“They know this,” he said.