The Unlikeliest Tour

The Unlikeliest Tour

Photo: In 1929 the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra traveled to Cuba. Seen here are the Orchestra's second music director, Henri Verbrugghen (2nd from left), violinist Jenny Cullen (the first female member of the Orchestra) and other Orchestra personnel preparing to board a ship in Havana.

I’ll be honest. It still seems surreal to type the words I’m about to type, but here goes. This week, my orchestra is going to Cuba. I am going to Cuba.

Listen to the live broadcast!

In the Twin Cities, tune in to 99.5 KSJN, or streaming worldwide at at 7pm central, Friday and Saturday, May 15-16, 2015.

Program details: Friday, May 15 | Saturday, May 16

It should have been impossible, right from the start. After all, the U.S. government only announced that it was going to begin normalizing relations with the island nation in mid-December 2014, and by early January, our orchestra’s President, Kevin Smith, was musing aloud about how cool it would be if we could be the first American orchestra to visit Havana following the thaw. Which was such a crazy fantasy that he had to say it a number of times before our General Manager, Beth Kellar-Long, said back, “So… this is something you actually want me to be looking into?”

International orchestra tours are massively complicated affairs that are normally planned years in advance just so that all the logistical hurdles are certain to be cleared. There’s so much to plan for, from which soloists and repertoire we’ll play (which isn’t 100% under our control depending on what a given presenter in a given city wants), to which hotels we’ll stay at, to how we’ll get around, to where and when we’ll set up, rehearse, and eat. But Kevin was talking about pulling together a tour to a country that Americans don’t ordinarily travel to, with U.S. government backing, in secret (we weren’t the only orchestra that wanted to be the first to Havana), in a matter of weeks. And then, somehow, through a crazy amount of luck and an even crazier amount of hard work on the part of our staff and board members, it happened, and this week, we embark on the cultural event of a lifetime.

There’s some history to America’s symphony orchestras being sent abroad as cultural diplomats. After President Nixon went to China in 1972 to reestablish diplomatic relations with that country, he specifically requested that the Philadelphia Orchestra spend two weeks touring China the following year. In 2008, the New York Philharmonic took the unprecedented step of accepting an invitation from the North Korean government to perform in Pyongyang.

Our orchestra was once sponsored by the U.S. State Department to undertake a Middle East tour in 1957. And while we will be the first American orchestra to perform in Cuba since the official announcement of a thaw in relations between our two countries, we’ll actually be the second since the Cuban revolution took place – the Milwaukee Symphony performed in Havana in 1999 as part of a cultural exchange.

The Minnesota Orchestra has its own history with Cuba as well, having performed there in 1929 and 1930 when it was known as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. The MSO in those days toured so much that it was known as the “Orchestra on Wheels,” and Cuba must have seemed like a tropical vacation to musicians who were used to spending weeks on end taking trains from one small Midwestern city to the next. We’ll be paying tribute to our predecessors by performing Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which was also on the MSO’s 1929 program in Havana.

As I said, this tour came together in record time and the planning was necessarily conducted at a frantic pace, so it’s only fitting that the tour itself should be somewhat hectic as well. We’ve all been warned to expect the unexpected, and, as our hardworking Tour Committee put it in an orchestra meeting last week, advised to “roll with it.” Including the 14(!) members of the press who are traveling with us, our tour party will be 134 people strong. A handful of board members and supporters will be coming along as well, and did I mention that all our cargo has to go on the same plane that we’ll be on? (This is unheard of for international tours, but will apparently eliminate one layer of bureaucratic red tape, and we are all about removing as many of those layers as we can. The result, of course, is that we are taking one massive airplane. Bass trunks don’t exactly fit on a commuter jet.)

I’m going to try to post as much as I can from Havana, but we’ve been warned that the internet situation there is beyond dodgy, so some of our experiences likely won’t be posted here until we’re back in Minneapolis. But fortunately, I’m not the only person covering this historic trip:

  • Clarinetist Rena Kraut will be writing for Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s website. Her first piece is already up, and it’s a great read.
  • Blogger and Minnesota Chorale stalwart Scott Chamberlain will be giving his own unique perspective in the virtual pages of MinnPost.
  • And then, of course, there’s the mainstream press. Star Tribune, MPR News, KSTP-TV, and The New York Times will all have journalists on the tour with us from start to finish.
  • And last but not least, Brian Newhouse and his team from Classical MPR will be on hand to bring both of our evening concerts in Havana live to Minnesota on KSJN-FM in the Cities (or find your local station here), and streaming on

Our adventure begins early Wednesday morning when we take a specially-arranged direct flight from Minneapolis to Havana. Thursday morning, we’ll split up and visit with music students at Havana’s Arts High School and University of the Arts, before regrouping for our own rehearsal later in the day. Friday morning, we’ll play what’s known as a side-by-side rehearsal with kids from the Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil del Conservatorio (they have a concert later this weekend at the same festival at which we’re being featured.) Friday night, you can catch us live on Classical MPR at 7:30pm Central Time. Saturday, we’ll have one more rehearsal, and then another concert (and another live broadcast) on Saturday night. And if that weren’t enough, some of our more jazz-inclined musicians have agreed to play a late-night post-concert jam session with Cuban musicians at our hotel.

All in all, we’ll be carrying 12 different pieces of music (including encores), working with two Cuban choirs and a piano soloist we haven’t met yet, and spending most of our meager downtime attempting to soak up every ounce of Cuban culture that we can. It’s going to be crazy. And I can’t wait.

Celebrate Cuba

Join us on Sunday, July 5 at 2pm for part two of our musical exchange with Cuba—as the 23-voice Cuban choir, Coro Entrevoces, joins our Orchestra for bold and brilliant music from both cultures. Details & tickets »

Sam Bergman

About the author

Sam Bergman joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 2000. In addition to performing as violist, he serves as host and writer for the Orchestra’s Inside the Classics concert series; he has also hosted or narrated the Orchestra’s Young People’s Concerts. Read his full bio »