The Minnesota Orchestra’s concert in Havana, Cuba, Friday night was greeted not only as a rare chance to hear an orchestra from overseas, but as a symbol of the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.
HAVANA — The Teatro Nacional, a 2,056-seat theater on the Plaza de la Revolución, was sold out. Two dozen photographers and videographers swarmed the aisles. The Minnesota Orchestra’s concert here Friday night was greeted not only as a rare chance to hear an orchestra from overseas, but as a symbol of the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.
The concert, the first by a large U.S. orchestra here in more than 15 years, was greeted with several standing ovations — and huge cheers when the Minnesotans teamed up with the Cuban pianist Frank Fernández and two local choirs to perform Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy.”
“They played beautifully — they send you to the clouds,” Graciela Fonseca, 73, said after it ended, adding that she viewed the concert as a sign of friendship between the two nations.
It was not your typical concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Tickets here cost around 50 cents, with students paying only half that — part of an effort to make cultural events accessible in a country where salaries are low, said Rafael Vega, the director of the theater, which also presents ballet, concerts, plays and comedy. The concert sold out quickly.
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As crowds gathered outside the theater, vendors sold cookies, chips and candy from a line of shopping carts, lending a festive, populist feel to the concert. The theater looks out on the broad plaza, where Fidel Castro used to hold rallies.
One side of the plaza is dominated by an enormous metal stencil-like portrait of Che Guevara that spans several stories on the side of the Ministry of the Interior building, and the other by a monumental memorial to José Martí, who was killed fighting for Cuban independence from Spain in the 19th century.
Other aspects of Friday night’s concert would have been more familiar to Minnesota audiences, or really any concert hall these days: a cellphone went off during a quiet passage in the Funeral March in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.”
The Minnesotans played an all-Beethoven program — not counting the sprightly Finnish polka that the orchestra’s music director, Osmo Vanska, who is from Finland, chose for an encore. The “Eroica” was a nod to history: the first time the orchestra played in Cuba, in 1929, when it was known as the Minneapolis Symphony, it closed its concert with the work.
The tour was designed not only to highlight the thaw between nations, but also the thaw within the orchestra: It resumed playing together only last year after a bitter labor dispute led to a lockout that silenced it for 16 months.
Now the orchestra is working to recapture what was lost: Vanska, who resigned during the lockout and expressed support for the musicians, came back; Carnegie Hall concerts that were canceled have been rescheduled; and the orchestra plans to resume recording its Grammy-winning survey of Sibelius symphonies.
Of course, even as it embarks on its ambitious Cuba tour, the orchestra faces challenges back home — attendance this season has dipped below the pre-lockout levels, and, though it has made up the difference through increased donations, the ensemble still has work to do to bring concertgoers and subscribers back.
And the travails of the Cuban economy still make life difficult for musicians here. As the Minnesota musicians played with students in a number of settings this week, they marveled at the high quality of their play in spite of poor instruments.
The Minnesotans brought small gifts for the students, who have trouble obtaining basic items: rosin for the string players, who rarely get to change the horsehair on their bows, and mouthpieces for the brass players.