Cuba Diary: Day One

Cuba Diary: Day One

We knew this tour would be different from anything even our well-traveled orchestra is used to, and those differences began bright and early Wednesday morning, when we all had to arrive at the airport before 7 a.m. to make our flight. Personally, I was hoping to see “Havana” listed between “Hartford” and “Hibbing” on the big departure board at MSP, but no such luck—our flight, of course, was a charter, on a huge Airbus A-330.

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

MPR’s Euan Kerr reported the fun fact that, while searching for a plane big enough to accommodate our harp and bass trunks, our tour staff considered bringing in a South African plane that was once used to transport giraffes. Chatting at our departure gate, Euan told me that plane was eventually rejected because it was too expensive to bring it in all the way from Johannesburg. I responded that I would have guessed it was rejected because of giraffe poop.

Tours are nearly always fun, but I don’t remember one ever beginning with quite the celebratory atmosphere that pervaded our plane. Somewhere over Alabama, the flight crew brought out champagne, our President Kevin Smith and Board Chair Warren Mack got on the PA, and we toasted everyone who had made our trip possible, from the staff at Virginia-based Classical Movements (who have been going a million miles an hour on our behalf for months now) to the indomitable Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who stepped up without a second thought to fund the trip.

For my part, this trip became very real as I watched the coastline of the Florida panhandle recede into the distance beneath us. An hour later, we touched down on Runway 6 at Havana’s José Martí International Airport. The press got off the plane first, so as to get plenty of pictures of the rest of us emerging into the bright Cuban sunshine. Before even proceeding to immigration and customs, there was an official round of photos on the tarmac next to the plane, and plenty of selfies, as well.

As you may have read elsewhere, our staff spent a lot of time in the run-up to this tour dealing with the international ivory ban that went into effect recently, and more or less made it illegal for musicians to cross international borders with our instruments (click here for the MPR story about this), which often contain small amounts of ivory. So manifests were drawn up, permissions sought and granted, and we were prepared to spend a lot of time waiting in line to have each hand-carried instrument carefully inspected and checked against the official approved list. And that’s exactly what happened…for about five minutes, after which the Cuban officials doing the inspecting more or less threw up their hands, closed their big book, and waved the rest of us over to baggage claim with no further inspection necessary.

As our buses drove away from the airport and began a circuitous driving tour of part of the city, I was struck by just how much Havana looks exactly as I expected it to, from the brightly colored buildings with wrought-iron balconies, to the revolutionary signs and posters around seemingly every corner, to those iconic 1950s-era American cars.

Havana Cars

We stopped for a few minutes to take pictures at Revolution Square, which is dominated by a massive sculpture of José Martí, the national hero who led the fight for independence from Spain in the late 19th century. Opposite Martí across the square are two government buildings, one adorned with the famous face of Che Guevara, and the other by another Cuban hero, Camilo Cienfuegos. Our tour guide took great pride in telling us that, when the Pope visited Havana a few years back, more than a million people thronged the Square to hear him speak.

After taking in a few more sights, including Havana’s Capitol (which is a near-perfect replica of the U.S. Capitol,) we checked into our hotel, caught our breath, and then headed right out again for a walking tour of Old Havana. I could tell you about it, but nah. Here…

Old Havana

Old Havana

Old Havana

Old Havana

After that, almost anything would have felt anticlimactic, but our evening was just beginning. We were taken to the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where we were treated to a short performance by chamber choir Coro Entrevoces that had the entire orchestra on our feet and cheering. And lest you fear that I’m taunting you with music you can’t hear, you can! Coro Entrevoces will be touring the U.S. this very summer, and they’ll be with us for a concert at Orchestra Hall on July 5! Trust me–get your tickets now.

Hotel Nacional

We ended our first day (which felt like about six days packed into one) with mojitos and dinner at the Hotel Nacional, complete with traditional Cuban music and actual dancing by a few of our braver musicians. Special mention should be made of the moment when Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano grabbed the hand of none other than Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and the two of them held the dance floor captive for several incredibly entertaining minutes.

So, that all happened. As Kevin Smith said earlier in the evening, it’s very hard to believe that we were in Minneapolis just this morning. And tomorrow, the real fun begins. Because “fun” is what this orchestra calls “work.”

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 »