There was something utterly right that the high point in my performing arts coverage this year came in Ybor City. It is one of the few districts in the suburban sprawl of the Tampa Bay area that has a real sense of place, and when members of the Florida Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba got together to play chamber music there, a little history was made.
The concert was part of the Florida Orchestra's cultural exchange with Cuba's musical institutions, and it was performed at Ybor's Cuban Club, the old community center for cigar workers that hosted many a musical group from the island until the U.S. embargo slammed down. That the concert was on Election Night was both ill-timed — only about 300 people turned out — and significant, considering that U.S.-Cuba policy hung in the balance between two very different presidential candidates, and, in retrospect, that Latino voters had such an impact in the re-election of Barack Obama, who cautiously relaxed restrictions on relations with Cuba during his first term.
It's not often that a symphony orchestra can claim to be on the cutting edge of something as big as changes likely to occur between the United States and Cuba. The Florida Orchestra has been smart to position itself as a player in a major geopolitical issue, especially one so relevant to the bay area, whose long-standing ties with Cuba range from 19th century liberator José Martí, who came to Ybor to raise money for independence from Spain, to Santo Trafficante, the Tampa mobster who ran the rackets in Havana before the Fidel Castro revolution.
Initially, the outreach to Cuba was the brainchild of music director Stefan Sanderling. In July, the orchestra made the surprise announcement that Sanderling was stepping down, and his role in the cultural exchange has been minimal. Instead of Sanderling conducting in Havana this winter, as was planned, concertmaster Jeffrey Multer will be featured as a soloist with the Cuban orchestra.
This year saw several installments in the Florida-Cuba exchange, which began in 2011 when a wind quintet from the orchestra went to Havana to play a concert and give master classes. In May, Enrique Pérez Mesa, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, made his U.S. debut in leading the Florida Orchestra in masterworks concerts. An impish figure, the Cuban maestro established good rapport with the musicians and led a program heavy on works with an Afro-Cuban beat, such as El Danzón by Alejandro García Caturla, one of the giants of Cuban classical music.
Six months later, Pérez Mesa returned, this time with his own orchestra on a U.S. tour, to be presented by the Florida Orchestra at Mahaffey Theater. A good-sized crowd heard a rich lode of Cuban music, including Tribute to Lecuona, a jazzy arrangement by Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera (also the piano soloist) of songs by Ernesto Lecuona, the legendary exiled Cuban composer who lived in Tampa after the revolution.
Still, what I found most moving was the previous night's concert at the Cuban Club, and how many of the Cuban orchestra members not performing were there, taking pictures of the bust of Martí on the sidewalk, relishing a slice of their homeland away from home. With inspired soloists — Sarah Shellman from Florida, Ariel Sarduy from Cuba — the performance of Bach's Double Concerto was sublime.
As far as I know, there were no anti-Castro demonstrations against the Cuba-related concerts this year, suggesting — as did the November election results — that support for the embargo is a paper tiger. Florida politicians could learn something from the Florida Orchestra.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.