The Minnesota Orchestra plays Havana this weekend. It's the first professional U.S. orchestra to perform in Cuba since the United States and the island nation began the process of normalization last December. For the musicians, this trip is about healing — both diplomatically and for themselves.
The trip is also one of firsts. The Minnesota Orchestra took the first direct flight ever from Minneapolis to Havana on Wednesday. It required special federal approval. More importantly, for an island as steeped in music as Cuba, this was the first major orchestra to visit since the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra toured for two days in 1999.
Even as the orchestra held its first rehearsal in the Teatro Nacional, people drifted into the theater and backstage, listening to the power of the music coming off the stage.
It's a small miracle this tour is happening. The joint announcement Dec. 17 from Presidents Obama and Castro relaxing longstanding restrictions on travel and commerce launched an orchestral race: Which from the U.S. would be first to perform on the island?
Minnesota won. It pulled off an organizational and logistical coup by being prepared to travel in just months. The Cuban authorities also reportedly liked that back in 1929, the first international tour of what was then the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was to Havana. The Beethoven program for the first of this weekend's two concerts replicated that performance of 86 years ago.
Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä says that building connection with Cubans is vital. "In a way, the best thing psychologically about the trip is the way we are working together with people here," Vänskä says. "They are working with us and that's the whole idea."
This the first major tour for the Minnesota Orchestra since the end of a bruising 16-month musicians' lockout. There were times during that contract dispute when many fans wondered if the orchestra would survive. Now, 16 months after the settlement and a management shakeup, the former antagonists are sharing an adventure.
Kevin Smith is the new Minnesota Orchestra president. The trip was his idea, in part to show that the organization could move quickly, which he says is a necessity in the modern orchestral environment. Standing in the crowded lobby of the Teatro National, he said it's worked well.
"To get back together and with this amount of excitement and energy — to do something extraordinary as this, it's just never happened before," Smith said. "So it's not just a matter of getting back, it's a matter of moving beyond. And I think we are doing it."
There were more than just concerts on the menu for the Minnesota Orchestra musicians. They traveled to local music schools to hold master classes. Friday they held a side-by-side rehearsal with Cuba's national youth orchestra. Students shared music stands with the Minnesota players, switching off with the professionals as they played under Vänskä's direction. The students were clearly exhilarated, and there were a few moments of terror when Vänskä focused on them individually.
The ensemble, some 200 strong, played music by Tchaikovsky and Borodin before moving on to a piece by the head of the school, Guido López-Gavilán. He took the podium and had the players tap out the Cuban rhythms in the piece on their instruments.
Everyone came away with a smile, but none bigger than López-Gavilan at hearing his students and the Minnesota Orchestra play his music.
Minnesota Orchestra double bass player Kathryn Nettleman says that to be in Cuba at this time, sharing music after having survived the turmoil of the labor dispute, has been the experience of a lifetime.
"And I think that's a testament to what can happen when people dream and believe and work hard together," she says. "That's what an orchestra is — it's a group of people on a stage doing that."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra made history becoming the first professional U.S. orchestra to perform in Cuba since 1999. It comes following the thaw in relations between the two countries that began late last year. This was a massive undertaking. The orchestra had to rent an especially large plane, big enough to haul the musicians and an acoustic shell. A tour like this usually requires years to plan. This one had to be pulled off in months. Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr has the story from Havana.
EUAN KERR, BYLINE: This is a trip of firsts.
UNIDENTIFIED FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Ladies and gentlemen, it is our pleasure to welcome you to Havana, Cuba. The local time is approximately 1:05.
KERR: The Minnesota Orchestra took the first direct flight ever from Minneapolis to Havana on Wednesday, embarking on the first high profile cultural exchange since Presidents Obama and Castro made a joint announcement relaxing long-standing restrictions in travel and commerce last December.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)
KERR: And orchestral race followed the announcement. A number of groups, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, vied to be the first. But Minnesota pulled off an organizational and logistical coup by being prepared to travel in just months. The Cuban authorities were reportedly partly swayed by the fact that back in 1929, what was then the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, made its first international trip to Havana. On Friday night the current orchestra replicated that 86-year-old Beethoven program.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)
KERR: But Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vanska says the trip was not just about music.
OSMO VANSKA: In a way, like, psychologically, the best part of the trip that we are working together with people here. They are working together with us, and that's the whole idea.
KERR: This is the first major tour for the Minnesota Orchestra since the end of a bruising 16 month musician's lockout. There were times in a contract dispute when many fans wondered if the orchestra would survive. Now 16 months after the settlement and a management shakeup, the former antagonists are sharing an adventure. Kevin Smith is the new Minnesota Orchestra president. He came up with the idea for the trip in January.
KEVIN SMITH: ...Back together and with this kind of excitement and energy to do something is extraordinary like this. This - it's just never happened before. So it's not a matter of getting back. It's a matter of moving beyond. And I think we're doing it.
KERR: In addition to concerts Friday and last night, Minnesota Orchestra musicians travel to local music schools to hold master classes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPET)
KERR: At the Escuela Nacional de Arte, a high school for the arts, some classes were so full, many students had to stand outside in the corridor straining to hear the lesson. Student Stephanie Anonyez moved from room to room listening through the open windows.
STEPHANIE ANONYEZ: I heard in other times about this orchestra, and there is an orchestra in Boston too. I wouldn't have thought that this orchestra came to here. It's amazing. It's really amazing.
KERR: The Minnesotans also held a side-by-side rehearsal with Cuba's National Youth Orchestra.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)
KERR: Students shared music stands with the Minnesota players, switching off with professionals as they played under the baton of Osmo Vanska. The ensemble, some 200 strong, played Tchaikovsky in Borodin before moving on to a piece by the head of the school, Guido Lopez Gavilan. He took the podium and had the players tap out the Cuban rhythms in the piece on their instruments.
(SOUNDBITE OF CUBAN RHYTHM)
KERR: Everyone came away with a smile but none bigger than Gavilan at hearing his students and the Minnesota Orchestra play his work.
GUIDO LOPEZ GAVILAN: (Through interpreter) It was beautiful and very exciting experience. And I know it will be unforgettable for all of us who shared it.
KERR: Like many people on this tour, Minnesota bass player Kate Nettleman says to be in Cuba at this time sharing music after having survived the turmoil of the labor dispute has been the experience of a lifetime.
KATE NETTLEMAN: And I think that that's a testament to what can happen when people dream and believe and work hard together. That's what an orchestra is. It's a group of people on a stage doing that.
KERR: Audience members at the concert say they hope more U.S. orchestras will tour the island. A woman who gave her name only as Emelia seemed to speak for many after the first show.
EMELIA: Thank you very much to Minnesota. Come back again.
KERR: The Minnesota Orchestra returns home today, but it's clear many in the organization could easily be tempted to visit Cuba again. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in Havana, Cuba.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.