ST. PETERSBURG — The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba can play symphonies by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and play them well. But what is special is when the musicians make like a big dance band from the Tropicana, the legendary nightclub in Havana, and play classical music with an Afro-Cuban beat.
That was the story Wednesday night when the National Symphony drew an enthusiastic crowd of 1,431 to Mahaffey Theater for a concert that was part of the orchestra's first national tour, as well as the latest installment in the Florida Orchestra's multiyear cultural exchange with musical institutions on the island.
It should be no surprise, given Cuba's rich musical tradition, that the National Symphony is a good-sounding ensemble. Though a bit undersized — about 70 players — it gave an alert performance of Mendelssohn's infectious Italian Symphony under music director Enrique Perez Mesa, returning to the scene of his U.S. conducting debut with the Florida Orchestra in May. Needless to say, the orchestra shone in the syncopated brass and percussion of Gershwin's Cuban Overture, which opened the program after the Star Spangled Banner and the Cuban national anthem La Bayamesa.
After intermission, Cuban music predominated, such as Jorge Lopez Marin's El Medico de Pianos, featuring a hot trumpet solo. Piano soloist Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera, sporting a red guayabera and red and white shoes, ignited the audience with Tribute to Lecuona, his jazzy arrangement of two songs — Malaguena and Ante el Escorial — by the famous Cuban composer who lived in West Tampa after the Fidel Castro revolution. Then Herrera brought down the house with his bravura performance in Guaguanco, a propulsive dance piece by Guido Lopez-Gavilan (who conducted).
The orchestra didn't take any shortcuts in its long program. The evening wound up with a credible account of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. There were two encores: a clarinet quartet with percussion and a danzon for piano and orchestra by Alejandro Garcia Caturla.
In some ways, the highlight of the National Symphony's two-day stay in the Tampa Bay area was a chamber music concert at the Cuban Club in Ybor City. Musicians from the Cuba and Florida orchestras played together on several pieces for an Election Night audience of 306 (the theater's capacity is 400), including members of both orchestras who came to listen.
For Cubans, the cigar workers' old community center is rich with historical significance, complete with a bust of national patriot Jose Marti by the front steps. Florida Orchestra trumpet players Rob Smith and Kenneth Brown and their counterparts from the Cuban orchestra, Jorge Rubio Perez and Fadev Sanjudo Rodriguez, gave a performance of the popular Lecuona song La Comparsa — in an arrangement by Brown — that was pure magic.
Clay Ellerbroek, the Florida Orchestra's principal flute, and principal bassoon Anthony Georgeson reprised Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6, a virtuosic dialogue they played last year when the orchestra sent a wind quintet to perform in Havana. Percussionists from Florida and Cuba deployed timpani, marimba, xylophone, triangle, bongos, cowbell and other rhythmic devices in A la Samba by Mitchell Peters.
Every classical musician is raised on Bach, and his Double Concerto for two violins received an inspired performance by the soloists — Sarah Shellman from Florida, Ariel Sarduy from Cuba — with the support of a chamber group of 10 musicians from both orchestras. With only a brief rehearsal to get acquainted, they gave a sublime demonstration of the universal language of music.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.