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Meet the Musicians

Cuba Connections: A Momentous Tour Reverberates

Minnesota Orchestra clarinetist and bass clarinetist Timothy Zavadil, left, with Cuban clarinet students and Cuban American Youth Orchestra Executive Director Rena Kraut, right.
Minnesota Orchestra clarinetist and bass clarinetist Timothy Zavadil, left, with Cuban clarinet students and Cuban American Youth Orchestra Executive Director Rena Kraut, right.

By Rena Kraut

The 2015 tour to Cuba was one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s signature events this century, and in its wake Rena Kraut, who regularly plays clarinet with the Orchestra, founded the Cuban American Youth Orchestra (CAYO), a national organization that fosters and unites the talents of musicians from the U.S. and Cuba through educational and performance activities in both countries. Last month musicians from CAYO performed at the Minnesota Orchestra’s Symphony Ball and other Twin Cities venues; four Minnesota Orchestra musicians and Rena subsequently traveled to Cuba for teaching and cultural exchanges. Rena shares thoughts on a memorable month of activities, the years of work by CAYO that preceded it, and details on being part of CAYO’s future travels.

Since 2015, I have seen hundreds of American and Cuban students, teachers and audience members impacted by the interactions we facilitate on and off the stage, in the U.S. and in Cuba. It’s a family that expands with every new friendship made, with every meal shared and every note played. When space is made for humans to connect, speak, and be heard, we have the opportunity for true understanding—one week and one friendship at a time.

May was a busy month for CAYO. Four Cuban students took part in a residency here in the Twin Cities in collaboration with five American students. In a week, they went from strangers to lifelong friends and put together two magnificent performances here in the Twin Cities, including one as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Symphony Ball gala, where they premiered a new piece by Cuban composer Jorge Amado. They also performed for preschoolers at Christ Church Lutheran, played Cuban jazz alongside high school students at South High School, serenaded seniors at Lyngblomsten Senior Care Center in St. Paul, and played for a packed house at MetroNOME Brewery, a brewery with a music education mission, owned and operated by William Eddins, a frequent visitor to the conductor’s podium at Orchestra Hall.

Equal footing is important to cross-cultural exchange, and following a two-year travel pause, CAYO returned to Cuba-based programming with our Arts Delegation from May 23 to 28. During this week, Minnesota Orchestra musicians Milana Elise Reiche (violin), Julie Gramolini Williams (oboe), David Williamson (bass) and Tim Zavadil (clarinet) spent a week teaching in two of Havana’s prestigious high schools for the arts, presenting master classes, individual lessons, chamber music coachings and instruction in instrument repair and reed-making. They are among many Minnesota Orchestra who have jumped at the chance to return to the island since the 2015 tour. Working in partnership with our Cuban colleagues, they brought everything from flash mobs to Frank Sinatra to hundreds of students ages 15 through 18. In turn, the young musicians shared their own traditional music with us.

This was Milana Elise Reiche’s third visit to Havana, and she came prepared to teach up a storm. It’s not every day that you catch a violinist flash mob parading through the halls or hear Orange Blossom Special through a doorway at Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán. Just before the pandemic, she was a part of CAYO’s March 2020 Arts Delegation. During that week, she stopped by the studio of a luthier in Old Havana, Juan Carlos, to have the violin maker there fix a problem with her instrument. He went a step further, asking if she ever had issues with the sound on one of the strings—she said she did—and he proceeded to work on it that week, leaving it in better condition than ever.

Two years later, Milana and her husband Garin were discussing the prospect of a new violin for their son Oscar, and they thought of Juan Carlos and his studio above Plaza Vieja. Would he make their son a violin? Yes, he would. Juan Carlos put the finishing touches on the chin rest while Milana was in Havana, using the same design as her own violin, and the violin made its debut in a private house concert in a duo with Juan Carlos’ wife Denise, a cellist, also on one of his instruments.

When Julie Gramolini Williams first visited Cuba in 2015 with the Minnesota Orchestra, the oboe section—Julie along with John Snow and Marni Hougham—met and befriended a fellow professional oboist named Lauren Rios. Lauren, a teacher at Escuela Nacional de Arte, wished her students had the chance to learn and prepare on English horn but didn’t have an instrument for them to use.

Back in Minnesota, the section found a Loree English horn that would be perfect for the young oboe students in Havana. Orchestra supporters Paula DeCosse and Deborah Dillaway helped kick off a successful fundraising campaign, and the instrument was hand-delivered in 2016 by Minnesota Orchestra tour partner Classical Movements. In 2019, John Snow reunited with Lauren and her students during CAYO’s tour to Havana. On this 2022 trip, the story was celebrated again when Lauren played the English horn along with Julie on oboe in an intimate house concert.

David Williamson traveled to Cuba with CAYO in 2019, and eagerly volunteered to come back this year to teach at Havana’s National School for the Arts and Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán. He delivered strings, music and rosin, and shared his years of experience in orchestral and jazz playing.

Minnesota Orchestra bassist David Williamson, center, with bass students at Escuela Nacional de Arte, Havana.
Minnesota Orchestra bassist David Williamson, center, with bass students at Escuela Nacional de Arte, Havana.

CAYO Director of Artistic Operations Tim Zavadil wore many hats on our 2022 Arts Delegation, from behind-the-scenes preparation to daily master classes, demonstrations and clarinet choir rehearsals. On CAYO’s 2020 delegation, Tim struck up a friendship with clarinetist, saxophonist and teacher Coqui Calzadilla García. When Coqui wasn't helping translate lessons, the two could be found talking shop, trying saxophone mouthpieces or spontaneously breaking into a blues tune. It’s these friendships that make each return visit to Cuba so special.

Clarinet students with Timothy Zavadil and Cuban teacher and musician Coqui Calzadilla García.
Clarinet students with Timothy Zavadil and Cuban teacher and musician Coqui Calzadilla García.

Now, a few weeks after my 11th trip to Cuba, it’s gratifying to see how CAYO has grown from a seed that was planted in 2015 to a tree with many branches. Some of those outstretched arms support students in the U.S. and Cuba; some support teachers; others are the audiences and patrons that travel with us, attend our concerts, and through their own giving enable us to reach wider and deeper. Working side by side with Cuba’s own talented teachers and performers, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra help inspire young musicians and give them tools to meet their potential. 

Sometimes you find a dear friend where you least expect it. Miles may separate us, but these connections endure.

Arts Delegations bring U.S.-based students, teachers and citizens to Cuba for small-group educational travel experiences. In November 2022 and February 2023, you can be a part of an Arts Delegation to Cuba with CAYO and the Minnesota Orchestra musicians who travel, teach and perform on these adventures. Find out how to join an Arts Delegation here, sign up to receive dates and information this summer.