HAVANA — A wind quintet from the Florida Orchestra made a lot of new friends in a triumphant concert Friday night in Old Havana. "You'll have to excuse me, I don't do this very often," Brian Moorhead, the clarinet player in the group, said after the performance as he autographed playbills for the crowd surrounding him, a rare brush with celebrity for a classical musician from the United States.
Presented in Oratorio San Felipe Neri, a 17th century church that was later a bank and then converted into a theater, the quintet's concert was the opening episode in a multiyear cultural exchange with Cuba that has raised the orchestra's profile in the Tampa Bay area and now created a sparkling first impression in Cuba. If all goes as planned — though there will be many hurdles along the way — the full orchestra could make a trip to Cuba in 2013.
Moorhead and his colleagues — Clay Ellerbroek, flute; Katherine Young, oboe; Anthony Georgeson, bassoon; and Robert Rearden, French horn — did themselves proud. Their superbly played program ranged from elegant French boulevard music, Jacques Ibert's Trois Pieces Breves, whose breezy first movement was an uncanny match for Havana's lively street life, to the thick, narcotic textures of Samuel Barber's Summer Music. (Yes, Havana is one sweaty place this time of year.) They played George Gershwin (Three Preludes, with its suggestion of Rhapsody in Blue, improvised by Moorhead), Jean Francaix's Quatour a vents and Paul Hindemith's Kleine Kammermusik, with Rearden's rich, robust horn sound filling the high dome above the stage.
Not surprisingly, a pair of Latin American pieces got the biggest response from the audience of about 100, which took up virtually all the seats in the space, overlooked by a stained glass rendering of a saintly figure. Ellerbroek and Georgeson blazed through Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 by the beloved Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Young's smoky oboe was the voice of the Argentinian tango in the encore, Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla.
The orchestra's exchange with Cuba is intended to be as much an educational outreach to the island nation that has long-standing ties to Florida as it is an opportunity for performance. That was borne out Friday morning when the musicians gave master classes at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, a music school for high-school age students. From the open windows of its second floor recital hall you can see a busy garage that services a constant flow of 1950s Chevys, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Chryslers, along with that other staple of the Havana streets, the boxy old Ladas from the former Soviet Union.
"Everybody is going to hear your high notes, it's the low notes you're going to want to bring out," Ellerbroek told a young flutist playing an Antonio Vivaldi concerto in his master class. "It's like you're a gymnast or jumping on a trampoline."
For another student, playing a suite by Georg Phillip Telemann, Ellerbroek offered another helpful metaphor. "It's a dance," he told her. "Think of the movement in the dance. Lighter. Graceful. You don't want to sound like you're dancing with big shoes on."
His remarks were translated into Spanish by a student from the class of more than 20, all teenage girls, wearing school uniforms of white blouses, brown skirts and sneakers. Ellerbroek fanned himself with a music score, and many of the girls had fans, too, to cope with the heavy heat and humidity. Air-conditioning is a remote concept in the conservatory, a once fine building crumbling from disrepair, like all of Havana. At one point during the morning, electrical power in the neighborhood went out, a common occurrence, and a concert by students for the quintet was played without lights.
Despite such obstacles, the conservatory, named for one of Cuba's most important 20th century composers, seems to be thriving. The level of musicianship is high. "They have a great concept of pitch," said Rearden, who had about 25 horn players in his class. "It may have something to do with the singing they do."
Georgeson was amazed by the number of players who turned out for his class, so many that the small practice room he held it in looked like a forest of bassoons. As all the quintet members did, he came bearing gifts, in his case, bassoon reeds.
Young didn't know if Cuban oboe reeds were the same as ones musicians use in the United States, so she brought a pound of cane to make them with. It was much appreciated, because instruments and musical accessories are in short supply. "We have big problems with reeds," one girl told Young. In subsequent visits, the Florida Orchestra plans to bring donated instruments collected in the bay area, but the first time around, officials decided to test the waters with small items like reeds, rosin for strings and brass mouthpieces.
"This wind quintet trip is like practice for us," said Michael Pastreich, president of the orchestra, one of four management staffers who accompanied the musicians. "We're here to meet people, make connections. For bringing the full orchestra."
The trip began on one of the new charter flights to Havana from Tampa International Airport on Thursday afternoon and ends today with a return to Miami.
Soon after arriving, Pastreich and the other staffers met with Susana Llorente Borrero, vice president of the Cuban Institute of Music, who assisted in arrangements for the quintet trip. On her office wall at the institute, in a decaying old mansion in the Vedado district, hang photos of Fidel Castro and Wynton Marsalis, who recently brought his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Cuba.
"We thought we would start small," Pastreich told her, through a translator. "What matters to us is a long relationship."
"Start with a small seed, and it grows," said Llorente Borrero, a brown-eyed, smiling woman in a red dress.
The cultural exchange has not been without problems, given the U.S. embargo on Cuba. "We stubbed a lot of toes with this wind quintet trip, and we're learning from that," Pastreich said.
For example, travel visas were slow to be issued by Cuba, and two news organizations that planned to cover the trip were denied press credentials and didn't go. But after Friday's concert, Pastreich said the trip had been one of the best experiences of his life, and he sounded eager to move forward with the project, tempered by its total cost, up to $500,000 to take the entire orchestra to the island.
"It's an awful lot of money to raise," he said. "I think we're tenacious enough to do it."
Moorhead, the clarinetist, a member of the orchestra for 38 years, has been an artistic anchor for its traditionally excellent wind section. Having lived through plenty of hard times with the organization, he especially deserved to savor the inspirational high of Friday's concert. Afterward, he was beaming.
"I think Oblivion was the perfect finale," he said of the Piazzolla piece. "The haunting melody captured perfectly the exotic nature of Havana. It's just an hour away from Tampa Bay, but it's a whole other wonderful world away."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.