Editor's note: Classical MPR assistant Brooke Knoll is in Havana as part of a U.S. contingent taking part in the Cuban American Youth Orchestra. Follow along as she shares her experience with this cross-cultural musical venture.
The week of six-hour rehearsals and long days has led up to this point CAYO's first concert. All of the musicians loaded up into buses, preparing for the two-hour ride to Matanzas, a city east of Havana. The recently restored town has brightly colored buildings and winding streets, with little parks and city centers guiding you towards the ocean.
Matanzas' main theater, the Teatro Sauto, was the planned performance destination, but it couldn't be used. Although it has been restored for more than eight years, it remains closed to the public because missing parts for its air-conditioning system can't be replaced due to a U.S. embargo. Although it was a barrier to a formal performance, CAYO seized the opportunity to perform a free concert in the pavilion outside of the theater's front steps.
As the musicians warmed up, people started gathering from the streets. Some knew that the performance was going on and brought family members and friends to watch, but many passers-by stopped to listen to music by Dvorak and Guido Lopez-Gavilan. Intense winds blew in from the ocean, requiring copious use of clothespins to keep sheet music in place, but the musicians were unfazed and played beautifully.
As the orchestra played the final notes of student composer Jorge Amado Molina's En Conga pa' la Habana, the audience rose to their feet to give exuberant applause. Out of the blue, the percussion section started playing an encore, with the rest of the orchestra joining in, laughing and dancing.
After a celebratory dinner, the rhythms of the evening echoed on the bus during the long trip back to Havana.
The last full day in Cuba for the U.S. musicians had arrived, and all musicians were given a free morning to take in the sights and sounds of Havana before giving their final concert. Musicians had the opportunity to go to a cigar factory for a tour, walk around Old Havana, and haggle for goods at an open-air market. Finally, everyone got dressed in concert black and headed to the Teatro Nacionale.
Conductors James Ross and Daiana Garcia Silverio led the final sound check, and musicians had a quick bite to eat before the lights on the stage rose and the concert began. I had the pleasure of playing harp on two of the pieces Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid and Guido Lopez-Gavilan's Moijito con Saoco. Being a part of the orchestra was an unreal experience, and by this final concert, everyone was moving together with the phrasing and making dancelike movements a part of the performance as well.
After intermission, the orchestra performed Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, where the performers were met with a standing ovation after the 38-minute marathon of a piece. The real energy came with the performance of the final piece. The musicians shouted "Cuba!" and "CAYO!" as a part of En Conga pa' la Habana, and the audience immediately jumped to their feet with the final note.
Composer and first violinist Jorge Amado Molina ran up to Ross and met him with a hug before taking a bow. The audience and orchestra roared as Ross and Amado were joined by Rena Kraut, the executive director of CAYO. Her vision had finally come to fruition, and had impacted everyone in such a profound way.
The evening after the concert consisted of a group dinner, followed by an evening of dancing and singing in celebration of what CAYO had accomplished. Not only did CAYO bring together two countries whose histories have such a complicated and painful past, but it brought together the next generation of arts ambassadors who aim to show the world that music has the power to bridge divides through a common language: music.
Although the tour has ended, the work of the musicians and everyone involved on the tour is just beginning.