Doug Wright had the best quote of the night. The principal trombonist of the Minnesota Orchestra looked over a dancing band of musicians, board members and patrons on Cathedral Square in Old Havana and said, “This organization is on the cusp of something really special.”

It has not been all dinners and dancing for the orchestra on its historic trip to Cuba, but the two evenings so far have reflected the buoyant spirit of a company that was stalled in a labor dispute 18 months ago. No couple reflected the new attitude better than principal cellist Tony Ross and board member Marilyn Carlson Nelson — who were swirling to the sounds of Septembo Habanero, a group reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club.

“Look at this,” Wright said. “This is just unbelievable.”

Earlier in the day, the musicians had visited schools where they coached students and listened to performances that honestly stunned the professional players.

“We knew they had a great brass tradition but we were frankly amazed at the talent of the string players,” said violinist Roger Frisch.

Then it was time to get to work with a late-afternoon rehearsal at Teatro Nacional de Cuba, where the orchestra will play the first of two concerts Friday night.

In contrast to the beautiful architecture of the Cathedral Square, the Teatro is a big, cast-concrete auditorium used for many purposes. The rehearsal took a while to meld the orchestra with solo pianist Frank Fernandez and a large vocal choir that will sing the Beethoven Choral Fantasy.

“Boys! I need you to watch the conductor,” said music director Osmo Vänskä, clearly frustrated with singers who were not on the beat.

“I need you,” he said, softening his tone. “I feel lonely.”

By the end of the session Vänskä and the singers had tightened up the sound noticeably.

Minnesota musicians will do a side-by-side rehearsal Friday with conservatory students at the Teatro Nacional. The concert, featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in addition to Egmont and the Choral Symphony, will begin at 7:30 p.m. CDT and will be broadcast live throughout Cuba and on Minnesota Public Radio classical stations (99.5 FM in the Twin Cities) and online at

It will mark the orchestra’s first performance in Cuba since 1930, when it was then known as the Minneapolis Symphony.

“So much has changed since this orchestra first came to Cuba,” Vänskä said at a midday press conference Thursday. “What has remained constant is the music and the relationships with the audiences.”