In its first U.S. tour since the Castro revolution, the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba will play concerts in the Tampa Bay area in November, including a performance of chamber music at the Cuban Club, the heart of the rich Cuban heritage in Ybor City.
"This is significant," said E.J. Salcines, a retired prosecuting attorney and judge and Latino elder statesman in Tampa. "The Cuban Club has been the site of a long cultural connection with the musicians and composers and theatrical performers who frequently came from Cuba to perform at the Cuban clubs in Ybor City. I look at this as an important event from a cultural point of view."
The Cubans will be presented by the Florida Orchestra as part of its multiyear cultural exchange with the island nation, which began last September when a wind quintet from the orchestra performed in Havana.
Cuba's symphony orchestra will be in the bay area at least three days. On Nov. 5, the chamber music concert at the Cuban Club will combine musicians from both orchestras. On Nov. 7 — the day after the U.S. presidential election — the entire Cuban National Symphony will perform at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.
The concerts in the bay area are part of a U.S. tour by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba — the first since Fidel Castro took control in 1959 — that starts in Kansas City in October and tentatively includes 17 cities in 10 states.
The Florida Orchestra wanted to do more than simply present the Cuban orchestra in a single concert.
"They aren't just coming into town, playing a concert and leaving the next morning," president Michael Pastreich said. "What we're able to do is have a full-fledged residency where we can embrace the Cuban national orchestra into the fabric of our organization and the fabric of our community."
Pastreich said it would cost the Florida Orchestra "in the neighborhood of $30,000" as the concert fee to the Cuban orchestra, plus quite a lot more for hotels, food, hall rentals and other costs of the residency.
At the Mahaffey concert, the program will feature Cuban pianist Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, along with Gershwin's Cuban Rhapsody, Guaguanco by Cuban composer-conductor Guido Lopez-Gavilan and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The conductors will be music director Enrique Perez Mesa and Lopez-Gavilan.
The chamber concert program is to be determined. In addition to the concerts, Perez Mesa and members of the National Symphony will offer master classes. Also on hand will be Roberto Chorens, executive director of the NSOC and director of the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, where the Florida Orchestra quintet members gave master classes during their visit to Havana.
This May, the Cuban cultural exchange continues with Perez Mesa making his U.S. debut as guest conductor of the Florida Orchestra in a program that includes Cuban music. Stefan Sanderling, the Florida music director, has been invited to guest conduct the Cuban orchestra in Havana in February 2013. Cuban guest artists and composers are likely to be featured in Florida Orchestra programs. The ultimate goal is to send the entire Florida Orchestra to Cuba to perform as early as the 2013-14 season.
The Cuban orchestra may play elsewhere in Florida, but tour producer Leonid Fleishaker of New York-based World Touring Entertainment said that contracts have not been finalized. The orchestra won't play in Miami, a hotbed of anti-Castro politics.
"Miami I don't think is in the works," Fleishaker said. "We could not get the right kind of venue on the right date in Miami."
With about 85 musicians on the tour, the Cuban orchestra may have to cope with possible defections.
"They know the math," said Ann Louise Bardach, author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and other books on Cuba. "They're not all going to go back. Because they get some defectors on every tour. They have to figure out what their PR losses are, too."
The Florida Orchestra was concerned about having the concerts flanking the elections, but in the end decided to go ahead.
"I think a great part of an artistic exchange like this one is bringing together a commonality of our communities entirely divorced from any political gyrations that might go on," Pastreich said. "So far, this cultural exchange with Cuba has been untouched by politics."
Roberto Ferrer, a native of Havana and a longtime musician and radio announcer in Tampa, does not think having members of the Cuban orchestra play the Cuban Club is a good idea. "Any other theater or club, okay, but this looks like provocation," he said.
Nevertheless, Ferrer would go to hear the Cuban national symphony, even though his family's business was confiscated by the Castro government.
"There will be some people picketing, that's for sure," he said. "But I will go because I'm an entertainer and I can separate music from politics . . . and I've learned to forgive and forget."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected].