Times Performing Arts Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — Jeff Multer gained fresh appreciation for concert hall conditions in the United States last Sunday when he was a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. The concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra played the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the orchestra at the National Theater of Cuba in steamy Havana.
"Even when the air conditioning was working, it was a bazillion percent humidity," Multer said after his return this week. "With water condensing on the violin, the instrument was literally sweating. I was sweating. Oil was leaching out of the wood. Then I was playing the fastest, hardest, most ridiculous violin concerto under those circumstances. It was such a surreal experience."
Multer's concerto performance was the centerpiece of his weeklong residency in Havana, the latest installment of the Florida Orchestra's ongoing cultural exchange with musical institutions on the island.
Though many of Havana's arts venues lack basics like adequate climate control, Michael Pastreich, the orchestra's president who went on the trip with Multer, said overall conditions in the city appeared to be improved from the previous time he was there. In 2011, a wind quintet from the orchestra played a concert in Old Havana to inaugurate the exchange.
"What struck me the most was how much work has been done in that city since we were there two years ago," Pastreich said. "It was very noticeable."
Multer and Pastreich were joined on the trip by Henry Adams, the orchestra's associate director of marketing and communications, who speaks Spanish and served as interpreter. There was a close call when the Cuban orchestra discovered at the last minute that it didn't have any of the string parts for the Sibelius concerto. Fortunately, Adams, who arrived later in the week, was able to bring copies of the needed parts from the Florida Orchestra library.
In addition to playing the Sibelius concerto, Multer led the Cuban National Symphony from the concertmaster chair in works of Handel, Bartok and Bach. "The musicians were super enthusiastic, always engaged, very welcoming," he said. "I got the impression that they were really jazzed. I think they are eager to take the next step with us."
Perhaps because it was performed on Mother's Day — a big deal in Cuba — the concert drew less than a full house, but those attending included a number of prominent musicians, such as pianist Frank Fernandez, violinist Evelio Tieles Ferrer and soprano Yolanda Hernandez. Enrique Perez Mesa, the Cuban orchestra's music director, who made his U.S. debut conducting the Florida Orchestra in 2012, was on the podium to lead the Sibelius concerto.
Multer also gave a pair of master classes for violinists at the high school-level Amadeo Roldan Conservatory and the University of the Arts. "The young ones were pretty advanced, and the college kids played at a high level," he said. "I was impressed."
With the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, the orchestra has had to overcome spotty communications to the island and red tape from Washington over visas and travel licenses. To maintain momentum in the exchange, Pastreich said his administrative priority on this month's trip was to line up the next event.
Mission accomplished: In March of 2014, percussionists from the Cuban orchestra will be in the Tampa Bay area for a week's residency, including classes and a collaboration with the Florida Orchestra percussion section.
All along, the ultimate goal has been for the whole Florida Orchestra to go to Cuba. Originally, that was tentatively planned for next March, but now it has been pushed back to March 2015. What needs to happen between now and then?
"I think the primary thing is fundraising," Pastreich said. "We're in the middle of our $25 million Music for Life campaign, which is going well, but we have to raise an additional $400,000 for the tour" to Cuba.
Is that doable?
"I think it's highly plausible," he said.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.