“The idea of touring the US started as a dream ten years ago,” said Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, the popular Cuban pianist who has accompanied the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba at its performances throughout the US in recent weeks.
“To see that dream become a reality is almost unbelievable,” he said during an interview after the orchestra's performance the Lehman College's Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx, New York.
The orchestra, which arrived in the US in mid-October to kick-off a series of performances that will ultimately take them to 20 cities, is performing in the United States for the first time ever in its 52-year history. More than 70 members of the 90-person orchestra, ranging from 18-78 years old, have come to the US for the tour, which began in Kansas City on October 16 and will end this weekend with two final performances in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Enrique Perez Mesa, director of the orchestra for the past 10 years, acknowledged the surreal feeling of seeing his musicians play in the United States, explaining that a committed group of arts lovers and cultural institutions are to thank for helping turn Herrera's dream into a reality.
The orchestra, well-known in Cuba, has played in many other countries, including Russia, Nicaragua, and Mexico, but Perez said that he and the members did not have any particular expectations coming into their US tour, apart from giving audiences a memorable musical experience.
What Perez, Herrera, and the other orchestra members have encountered, they said, is audience after audience of music lovers who, somewhat surprisingly, have both a broad and deep knowledge of a wide variety of music.
“The audiences here in the States are absolutely perfect,” said Herrera, who indulged the enthusiastic Bronx audience with several encore pieces. “They know Rachmaninoff, they know Gershwin, they know Beethoven. And they know our 'Guantanamera,' 'Manicero,' 'Son de la Loma.'”
Herrera likens the program, which includes pieces by George Gershwin, Beethoven, and Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, to a “musical voyage that takes the audience and musicians across space and time.”
“Their knowledge compels us to really give them our very best.” Alberto Batista Meneses, a trombonist originally from Artemisa, Cuba, has been a member of the orchestra for 34 years; he too describes the audiences as “divine.”
Some concert-goers, however, have used the occasion of the orchestra's performances to advance their particular political opinions and interests. At the end of the concert in the Bronx, a small contingent of audience members stood up to chant “Cuba, si, bloqueo, no!” and “Viva Cuba! Viva Fidel!” after the final encore. Campus police were visible throughout the concert, though Janet Sanchez, Operations and House Manager of Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, said that police presence during shows is standard policy and no incidents of serious concern were expected nor planned for in relation to the orchestra's visit.
The orchestra will play its final US performances this weekend at Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida. Historically, Cuban artists visiting southern Florida have often been met with protests and even event boycotts. But local media have not reported any such protests planned for this weekend's concerts, and the arts editor of Palm Beach Daily News wrote in an article on Thursday that while Kravis Center administrators worried about a backlash from season ticket subscribers when they booked the orchestra, that has not, in fact, occurred.
Perez, like Herrera and other members of the orchestra don't want to talk politics, but the director concedes that their US tour “is very important for the orchestra.”
“We feel honored to be able to be here,” Perez said, adding that every host site has invited the orchestra to return. “I hope that we will be able to continue forging closer cultural ties with the US.”
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer living in Havana.