Cuba Diary Day Three: Game Day

Cuba Diary Day Three: Game Day

Friday’s musical activities here in Havana were scheduled to start a bit later than they did the day before, and that turned out to be a very good thing for a fair-sized chunk of the orchestra, who had stayed out very late Thursday night after discovering that the legendary Cuban band, Buena Vista Social Club, was performing at our hotel.

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

And after the performance, well, hanging out in the wee hours along the Malecón (the main avenue and seawall that abut the Atlantic Ocean on Havana’s northern edge) with hundreds of Cuban natives seemed like practically a mandatory activity, and, well, let’s just say there were some bleary eyes at breakfast today.

But no one beats professional musicians when it comes to fending off bleariness, so most of us were on site and getting warmed up at the Teatro Nacional a full 45 minutes before we were due there for our side-by-side rehearsal with the young musicians of Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil del Conservatorio Amadeo Roldan. Side-by-side rehearsals, in which you’re effectively packing two full orchestras into the space usually occupied by one, are a logistical nightmare for the stage crew, but as usual, our crew had everything figured out, and the students soon streamed on stage to meet us and find their seats. They’re performing at the Teatro on Sunday morning, so the plan was for us to play their repertoire with them, with Osmo conducting two pieces, and their conductor, Guido López Gavilán, conducting one of his own works.

The week before the tour, violist Michael Adams had asked the rest of us in the section to chip in a few bucks so that he could buy a bunch of musical supplies to bring to the Conservatorio kids as gifts, and we handed out the little bags containing cakes of rosin, fancy mutes, and peg dope (used to make our tuning pegs turn more smoothly) as we met our stand partners. Almost to a person, the kids were the happiest to see the rosin, as most of them have to go years without getting the horsehair on their bows changed. (By comparison, I get mine changed every 2-3 months.) My stand partner, Ramon, showed me his bow hair as he eagerly unwrapped the rosin – the bottom two inches of the hair were stained almost black from overuse. But he was clearly used to coping with the shortcomings of his equipment. As we launched into Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, he leaned into his viola and drew a truly beautiful sound from the mass-produced instrument.

In fact, the level of the orchestra overall was very high for an ensemble made up of teenagers. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. This orchestra could easily hold its own against most American youth orchestras, and would have some American ensembles beat by a country mile. They were also notable for the joy they took in playing. Before the rehearsal even began, our percussion section started up an impromptu jam session with the Cuban kids, and they were so into it that, when our staff tried to signal the beginning of rehearsal, they kept right on playing until someone called to them to break it up. Our principal percussionist, Brian Mount, threw up his hands in mock outrage and shouted, “What?! We’re working here!”

Percussion jam

Osmo worked through the Tchaikovsky with the help of an interpreter (though in truth, he frequently didn’t let her get a word in edgewise, preferring instead to sing rhythms and phrases the way he wanted them), and then continued with one of Borodin’s famous (and difficult!) Polovetsian Dances. Ramon grinned as he pointed to the big viola solo that was just ahead of us.

The Borodin is essentially a big boulder rolling down a hill, gathering speed until it’s almost out of control. At one point when the tempo is supposed to jump ahead, Osmo gave the cue at his usual tempo, but almost immediately, it was clear that the kids were used to playing it even faster. Osmo stopped us, grinned, and said, “Okay, now I understand your tempo! Let’s try again.” It felt dangerously fast, even for professionals used to playing the piece, but the kids by and large handled it like it was nothing, and the piece raced forward to its shattering conclusion.

After a break, we reconvened to try our hand at Mr. López Gavilán’s piece, which is based on the rhumba and titled Guaganco. The maestro greeted us graciously in Spanish, thanking us for taking the time to work with his students, and then announced that we would start working at the end of his piece, so that we non-rhumba experts could get the rhythmic feel of the piece. Immediately, the students showed that they inherently understand these dance rhythms in a way that most of we Minnesotans do not. There was one rhythmic figure in particular – a five-note motif that felt almost familiar, but we quickly realized that our American inclination, honed by a lifetime of hearing American jazz and popular music, was to place the third note slightly earlier than was actually written. Once we corrected ourselves, the rhumba swing snapped into place, and we were only too happy to trail along in the students’ wake as they led us through the piece.

When we finished, the room erupted in applause from musicians and observers alike. As the morning drew to a close, we snapped photos with our stand partners, wished them the best for their Sunday concert (which, sadly, we’ll have to miss, since we’ll be on our way home), and spent a few more minutes bonding over our shared music-making.

As I write this, it’s just after five in the afternoon, and we’ll be headed back to Teatro Nacional for tonight’s concert in a couple of hours. It’s already been an emotional and musically rich trip, but the biggest events are yet to come. Our friends at Classical Minnesota Public Radio tell me that over 60 stations around the U.S. have signed on to carry at least one of our Havana concerts live, and the whole island of Cuba will be hearing it as well. Pressure’s on. But we like pressure.

At this point, I may not have a lot of time to write until after the concerts are done, so look for a wrap-up of our big Cuban adventure in this space Sunday night or Monday morning. For now, we’ll see you on the radio!

Photos © Travis Anderson 2015.

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 »