BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
When the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba gives a concert Wednesday in St. Petersburg, it will feature a work by composer Ernesto Lecuona, the "Gershwin of Cuba" whose music illustrates the deep ties between the island nation and the bay area.
"Lecuona played right here in this room," said Richard Gonzmart, owner of the Columbia Restaurant, sipping coffee one morning last week in the Siboney Room, a banquet hall and ballroom named for a classic Lecuona song that, for Cubans, evokes an extinct Indian tribe from the island.
Tribute to Ernesto Lecuona, drawn from songs by the composer, will be performed by the Cuban orchestra, which is on its first tour of the United States. It is being presented in the Tampa Bay area by the Florida Orchestra as part of a multiyear cultural exchange with Cuba.
In the first half of the 20th century, Lecuona was the most famous Cuban composer, as well as a great pianist, and he played concerts around the world. In Ybor City, he performed at the Columbia and Centro Asturiano.
“Siboney was my grandfather's favorite song," said Gonzmart, 60, whose family has run the Ybor City landmark since 1905. "I was only 4 or 5 years old, but I kind of remember my parents asking me to play violin for Lecuona when he was visiting at our house. When you talk to me about Ernesto Lecuona, what comes to mind is my mother playing Malagueña (another popular Lecuona song) at the piano. It's all good memories."
Lecuona left Cuba to live in West Tampa after Fidel Castro came to power, and he opposed the revolution until his death at age 68 in 1963 of an asthma attack while on vacation in the Canary Islands. Despite his exile, the composer is revered in Cuba.
"We never do anything against his decision to move to the United States, as far as I know," said Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera, the pianist who did the arrangement of the Lecuona tribute and will perform as the soloist Wednesday. "All piano students at the Cuban music conservatories play Lecuona."
On its tour, the National Symphony is playing another Lecuona classic. "Our orchestra is even playing La Comparsa in some of the venues, and that is something they have been playing forever," Herrera said.
The pianist spoke last month from a bus on the highway to Worcester, Mass., where the orchestra was to play the seventh concert on its 21-city tour, which began Oct. 16 in Kansas City. The 70 or so musicians, traveling on two buses along with a truck, will have racked up about 6,000 miles by the end of the tour next weekend in West Palm Beach.
"The musicians have been able to look out and really see the United States," Herrera said. "The tour has been intense but very fun. They have been impressed by this very long road."
Herrera, 46, well-known as a jazz pianist, is one of the few musicians on the Cuban tour who speaks much English. He is something of a special case, having lived and taught music in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area since 2001. (One of his best friends there is retired Minnesota Twins star Tony Oliva, also from Cuba.) Like other prominent artists, he is allowed by the Cuban government to have dual citizenship.
"So far I have been able to go back and forth, no problem," said Herrera, who, with his wife, Aurora Gonzalez, had a role in organizing the tour.
Press coverage of the tour has not been heavy, but turnouts have been decent — attendance of nearly 1,600 in Kansas City — and several reviewers have given the orchestra high marks. "It was a good show and a night to remember," Albany Times Union music critic Joseph Dalton wrote of the concert in Schenectady, N.Y., noting in particular the big percussion numbers. "It was impossible to sit completely still in your seat during such vibrant displays."
Music and politics
Michael Pastreich, president and CEO of the Florida Orchestra, went to that concert in Schenectady to work out some details with Cuban officials about the Tampa Bay engagement. The program there and at other tour stops opened with both the Star-Spangled Banner and La Bayamesa, the Cuban anthem, but the orchestra has considered not playing its national anthem in Florida as a precaution against ruffling any political feathers, said Pastreich. Last week, the Florida Orchestra had received no indication of any anti-Castro protests planned during the Cubans' stay in the bay area.
The National Symphony tour has a half-dozen stops in Florida — with concerts this past weekend in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine and today in Naples — but none in Miami, which has the largest Cuban-American community in the country. Herrera insisted the rabid anti-Castro politics there did not figure in the routing.
"That wasn't intentional at all," he said. "The venues in Miami didn't have an open date. At least we are going to be close enough for people to come and see the orchestra in Tampa and West Palm Beach."
Defections are not uncommon when Cuban performers are in the United States, but none have been reported from the symphony orchestra tour.
"We are not expecting anything like that," Herrera said. "The orchestra touched ground in the United States for the first time in Miami. So they had the opportunity at the beginning of the tour to do something and decided not to do it and decided to represent our country with our music. So far we are all together. If it happens, it happens."
The Florida Orchestra's cultural exchange with the Cuban Institute of Music, the government agency that presides over musical activity, lends significance to the Tampa Bay concerts. A year ago, a wind quintet from the orchestra traveled to Havana to give a concert and hold master classes. In May, Enrique Perez Mesa, music director of the Cuban orchestra, made his U.S. conducting debut in a well-received masterworks program with the Florida Orchestra. Perez Mesa returns this week and will conduct in Wednesday's concert.
"Concerts we are definitely looking forward to are the ones we are going to be doing in St. Pete and Tampa," Herrera said. "We know there is a large Cuban community there. Historically, Tampa has been connected with the Cuban people for years and years and years. What can I say? It will be an honor for us to play there."
Tampa's Cuban history
Tuesday's chamber music concert, a collaboration the Cuban and Florida orchestras, should be rich with historic resonance because of its site: Ybor City's Cuban Club, a community center for cigar workers and their families during the industry's heyday.
But ticket sales have disappointed. Pastreich said only about 100 tickets sold last week.
Wednesday's concert at Mahaffey was doing better at the box office, with about 1,000 tickets sold.
Ybor City plays a pivotal role in Cuban history. Nineteenth-century Cuban patriot José Marti gave speeches there to rally support for independence from Spain, and legendary Cuban musicians like Beny Moré performed at the Cuban Club.
"Castro was at the cafe," said Gonzmart, referring to the Columbia's original dining area, where the bar is now. "He came over here numerous times to raise money (for the revolution)."
During the Cuban orchestra's stay in the bay area, plans include a tour for the musicians of Ybor City conducted by E.J. Salcines, a retired prosecuting attorney and judge who knows the history well.
"If there is any place they should come to, it would be the Columbia," said Gonzmart, who has made a financial contribution to the orchestra's fundraising effort for the cultural exchange. "They won't believe something like this exists in the United States. They'll feel right at home."
Shopping is also on the Cubans' agenda. Wednesday morning, the schedule includes a bus trip to the Ellenton Premium Outlets mall.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.