A quintet of wind musicians from the Florida Orchestra was in Havana on Friday for a performance and workshops with local students, the latest in a string of U.S.-Cuban cultural exchanges that have been on the rise in recent years.
The five members of the Tampa-based orchestra, all principals on their instruments, met with teens at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory in the morning and were struck by the budding musicians' acumen, oboist Katherine Young told The Associated Press.
"As a group we were so impressed with the level of students at the conservatory and their maturity as young players," Young said. "I think American students would be surprised at how sophisticated they are."
They were scheduled to appear in concert later at the historic San Felipe Neri Oratory in Old Havana.
The orchestra said it was the first time musicians from a professional U.S. orchestra performed in Cuba since 1999, when the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra made a celebrated tour of the island. The New York Philharmonic has tried to visit on two separate occasions since 2009, but plans fell through both times.
Washington's nearly 50-year-old economic embargo bars most American travel to Cuba, but such cultural exchanges have increased under President Barack Obama.
The American Ballet Theatre performed an homage to Cuba's legendary prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso in a Havana theater last November. The previous month, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra played a series of historic jazz concerts on the island.
Meanwhile, Cuban musicians such as Silvio Rodriguez, Los Van Van, Chucho Valdes and Pablo Milanes have recently toured the United States.
The exchanges have not healed the rift between two governments torn by decades of antagonism, but Young said it was clear from the sessions with the youngsters that they had much in common, as individuals and music lovers.
"We were able to immediately start talking about the things we know about, the difficulties that we all share with our reeds and our instruments," she said. "I think that there's an understanding mutually about music that doesn't matter where you're from ... that can help bridge the gap."
The orchestra also began delivering donated musical equipment and instruments collected in the United States, everything from violins and flutes to strings, reeds, mutes and mouthpieces.
Future plans for the exchange include sending the orchestra's music director to conduct Cuba's National Symphony in early 2012 and bringing his counterpart to Tampa as part of the Masterworks series, spokeswoman Sherry Powell said.
"Eventually we hope to send the entire Florida Orchestra," Powell added.
Young said she was awed by Havana's sweeping sea views and storied but crumbling architecture, and floored by her interactions with Cuban people.
"This has been a life-changing opportunity for us," she said.