ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Orchestra often tiptoes between performing crowd-pleasing classics and offering contemporary music that could alienate its more traditional patrons.
But that balancing act might seem tame as the orchestra steps into a new realm of world politics that revolves around a nearby island that is at the center of one of this country's most contentious relationships: Cuba.
The orchestra announced Tuesday that it has been given the official approval for a multiyear cultural exchange program with the communist country.
It is scheduled to begin Sept. 26-29, when a wind quintet made up of principal players from the orchestra will perform a concert and give master classes in Havana.
That will be the first in a series of exchanges between the Florida Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. The goal is for the full orchestra to perform in Cuba as early as the 2012-13 season. It would be the first visit by a professional U.S. orchestra to Cuba since 1999, when the Milwaukee Symphony played there.
The orchestra got permission to travel to the island when it was granted a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees trade with Cuba.
The timing appears to have been fortuitous.
In January, the Obama administration announced that it was loosening travel restrictions to Cuba to enhance the "free flow of information" and to promote the independence of the Cuban people from communist rule. In March, Tampa International Airport was added to the list of airports that could originate flights to the island, though they have not yet started.
"We had no idea these restrictions were going to be changing," said Michael Pastreich, president of the orchestra, adding that planning for the Cuban cultural exchange had been going on for at least a year. "So I think it's a case of being at the right place at the right time."
Jose Valiente, a Tampa accountant and past chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, chairs the task force the orchestra set up to explore going to Cuba. Valiente, a native of Rincon, a small town outside Havana, came to the United States as a 12-year-old with his father in October 1962, just days before the Cuban missile crisis.
"I think of this exchange as the laying down of another brick on the bridge that is rebuilding," Valiente said. "Cuba and the U.S. will soon be friends. It's not if; it's when."
Valiente, who returned to Cuba for the first time last year as part of a group from the World Trade Center of Tampa Bay, sees the orchestra's venture as "just another way to get people to talk to each other. Music is the universal language that can bring people together."
He also cited the historic ties between Cuba and Tampa as a compelling reason for the orchestra's project. "The people of Cuba are fully aware of their rich history in the Tampa Bay area," he said. "Jose Marti spent time in Ybor City making speeches on the steps of the Cuban Club to raise money for independence from Spain. Even Fidel Castro came here. I've seen pictures of a young Fidel in Tampa raising money."
And he thinks the Cuban cultural exchange will do wonders for raising awareness of the Florida Orchestra.
Does Valiente expect any negative political fallout from hardliners who don't want any easing of relations between the United States and Cuba? "None whatsoever. Things have changed quite a bit in the last several years. Even in Miami, over half the Cuban-American population favors relations between the United States and Cuba."
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who helped the orchestra get permission to perform in Cuba, doesn't anticipate political problems.
"I think there remains great bitterness toward the political leadership of Cuba," said Castor, a Tampa Democrat. "But I do not believe that extends to the people of Cuba or a cultural exchange like this. I would be very surprised if there is anyone that will protest this type of meaningful people-to-people exchange."
But U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who chairs the Committee on Foreign Affairs and is a longtime critic of the Castro regime, said such cultural exchanges "only serve as a propaganda tool for the octogenarian clique that oppresses Cuba. It is very unfortunate that some would advocate for exchanges that have little impact on bringing freedom and democracy to Cuba."
Johannes Werner, editor of Cuba Standard, an online publication that covers business and economic news from Cuba, said that cultural exchanges are "one of the issues that have thrived'' since the loosening of travel restrictions. The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, a student ensemble from Cambridge, Mass., is now on a seven-day, four-concert tour of Cuba.
Music director Stefan Sanderling first came up with the idea to have the Florida Orchestra go to Cuba.
"When he brought it up a couple of years ago, we were not in a position to absorb a project of that magnitude," Pastreich said. "But the organization has become stronger over the past few years. Now a project like this makes perfect sense."
For Pastreich, a principal aim of the cultural exchange is to deepen the orchestra's relationship with the bay area's Cuban-American community.
"Speaking to a major population in our community makes us more relevant," he said. "Doing an artistic project that ties into the history of our community makes us more relevant."
Last week, Sanderling announced that he will not be renewing his music director contract with the orchestra after the 2013-14 season. Pastreich said that will not affect the Cuba project.
Pastreich estimated that it will cost $500,000 to fund the orchestra's cultural exchange with Cuba. He has some heavy hitters among the orchestra's backers, such as former U.S. ambassador to Italy and Australia Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg shopping center developer and major fundraiser for the Republican Party.
"Raising money is always a challenge," Sembler said. "And these are difficult times. But this is important, and those people who want to support the orchestra I'm sure will be generous enough to raise the resources to accomplish this trip, which I think will be historic."
Twice in the past two years, the New York Philharmonic has canceled proposed trips to Cuba.
"I'd love to see the Florida Orchestra go where the New York Philharmonic couldn't go," Sembler said. "I think this would put the orchestra in a different category."
Times staff writers Steve Huettel, Robbyn Mitchell and Alex Leary contributed to this report. John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.