TAMPA — A little musical and geopolitical history was made Friday night when Enrique Perez Mesa, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, made his U.S. debut not far from the historic cigar factory districts that constitute some of the deepest ties between the two countries.
In the first of three concerts this weekend, the Cuban maestro led the Florida Orchestra at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. It is part of a multiyear cultural exchange between the orchestra and Cuban musical institutions that began last fall with a wind quintet from the orchestra giving a concert in Havana.
Perez Mesa brought a rich lode of Cuban music to the orchestra in a program heavy with rhythm, opening with a propulsive performance of what felt like a minor masterpiece by Carlos Farinas, Preludio para Penthesilea. It combined the hypnotic repetitive patterns of Mimimalists like John Adams and Philip Glass and the infectious dance that inspired Leonard Bernstein to write Dance at the Gym for West Side Story. It also featured an arsenal at the back of the orchestra: six percussionists, more than 30 percussion instruments, including rarities such as the log drum.
The other piece by a Cuban composer on the program, Ritmotiv by Guido Lopez-Gavilan, was similarly relentless in its pulsating momentum, building to a big, brassy finale. Perez Mesa, a short, somewhat impish figure with silver-gray hair, deployed the clear stick technique needed to guide the orchestra deftly through the tricky score.
In keeping with the rhythmic theme, the orchestra revisited Cubanitis, a piece by James Lewis that it premiered 14 years ago, featuring, then as now, principal timpanist John Bannon as the soloist. In a pre-concert talk, Bannon said the work was "inside me more than it was the last time." That seemed to be true not only in his masterful performance but for the orchestra as a whole, because Lewis' 17-minute work, written after his first visit to Cuba, made a sensational impact, especially in the context of Perez Mesa's mostly Latino program. Lewis, a retired USF music professor now living in Mexico, was in attendance to take a well-deserved bow for his sophisticated amalgam of contemporary art music and jazz. Highlights included a witty cadenza for timpani and Valerie Gillespie's smoldering sax solo.
Also on the agenda were two sure-fire crowd pleasers: Prokofiev's sleek, always charming Classical Symphony, which provided a kind of percussion-free (save for Bannon on timpani) clearing in the polyrhythmic woods; and Mexican composer Jose Pablo Moncayo's Huapango, which managed to be hard-driving and lyrical at the same time, with a prominent harp part by Anna Kate Mackle.
Attendance Friday was about 1,200. The orchestra didn't have data on Latino ticket buyers, but certainly, much more Spanish than usual was heard during intermission. Among those in the audience were about 80 members of Sisters Across the Straits, a group affiliated with the League of Women Voters of Florida that does people-to-people cultural exchanges with Cuba. They scheduled their meeting in Tampa to coincide with the Cuban conductor's appearance.
For an encore, Perez Mesa turned to the audience and said, in Spanish, that he had a little gift, more music from his country, and then he and the orchestra proceeded to make like the band at the Tropicana, the famous Havana nightclub. They performed El Danzon, a piece by Alejandro Garcia Caturla, one of the giants of Cuban symphonic music (also a lawyer and judge who was murdered by a gambler he was about to sentence in 1940). In an arrangement by Gonzalo Romeu, this exuberant, tropical concoction is a consummate blend of classical dance, pop music and jazz, with the maestro urging the crowd to clap along. It ended the night on a note of pure bliss.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.