HAVANA – It was 1:01 p.m. Wednesday when Delta Flight 8876 hit the tarmac at José Martí International Airport in Havana.
“Yubba yubba dee,” shouted violist Michael Adams.
“Yubba diah,” responded his mates near the rear of the airplane as the Minnesota Orchestra and a group of cultural ambassadors landed in Cuba for a historic five-day visit. The 160 musicians, staff, supporters and press may be the largest Minnesota contingent to visit the island nation since the Minneapolis Symphony arrived by steamer in January 1930.
Adams explained later that the phrase simply mimics the tempo and melody of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
“It’s tradition on any tour when the wheels hit the ground,” Adams said as his orchestra becomes the first major U.S. orchestra to travel to Cuba since President Obama’s December overture to normalize relations.
The orchestra will perform at the Teatro Nacional on Friday and Saturday nights, and coach music students from a high school, university and conservatory. The concerts will be broadcast live on Minnesota Public Radio at 7:30 p.m. Twin Cities time both nights.
“Believe it or not, we’re finally doing it!” said orchestra President Kevin Smith during a champagne toast on the flight. “We look forward to seeing you on the ground in Havana.”
The orchestra’s flight, while uneventful, was also historic as the first direct flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Cuba since the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol approved the airport as a “port of entry.” Previously, travelers had to go through other cities, such as Miami or Atlanta.
Orchestra officials had raised the issue with the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which in turn sought approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., played a key role in the designation.
“We worked with Sen. Klobuchar’s office to encourage the FAA to approve such flights,” said Patrick Hogan, MAC spokesman.
The scene at José Martí was jubilant — dozens of people taking pictures of dozens of other people taking pictures. Music director Osmo Vänskä and concertmaster Erin Keefe posed for a selfie with the airplane in the background, and then with the airport building.
A half-dozen coach buses took the players, staff, donors, board members, press and community supporters on a tour of the city on the way to the Hotel Meliá Cohiba, which sits near the Atlantic Ocean.
Included was a stop at the Plaza de la Revolución, a huge spread of asphalt near the Teatro Nacional and directly adjacent to the José Martí memorial. Martí was a celebrated author and a hero of Cuba’s 19th-century war of independence against Spain.
A walking tour was planned for the evening, followed by dinner at the Hotel Nacional.
Jackets that felt good at takeoff were peeled off at the airport, where sunshine, 85 degrees and high humidity signaled that the orchestra was not in Minnesota anymore.
The board members, donors and community supporters — who are traveling with the orchestra on “people to people” cultural-exchange licenses — will visit cultural sites, talk with Cuban artists and, of course, attend the concerts.
The trip was Smith’s brainstorm, and in the past 110 days the orchestra’s staff has worked with Klobuchar’s office and Classical Movements, a Virginia-based group that for 18 years has handled logistics for such tours.
“This is definitely the largest we have handled,” said Classical Movements President Neeta Helms.
On Thursday morning, the orchestra will visit a high school and university to work with small groups of musicians. In the afternoon, the orchestra will get its first look at the Teatro Nacional, a 2,086-seat auditorium.
In the orchestra’s cargo was a large band shell, borrowed from Champlin Park High School, to help with acoustics in the hall.
“I’d like to raise a glass to Kevin Smith for making this crazy idea into this fantastic trip,” said the orchestra’s board chairman, Warren Mack, a Minneapolis corporate attorney. He also mentioned former Carlson Companies chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband, Glen, who helped underwrite the cost of the tour.