At several junctures, the National Symphony of Cuba may have wondered whether it would be swept to Florida on storm surge or arrive packaged as ice cubes.
The orchestra has been dodging the wrath of Hurricane Sandy for the last few days. It played at Kean University in Union, N.J., on Sunday, the day before the storm hit. Then it hustled down to Danville and Newport News, Va., which were battling wind and flooding from Sandy even as chilly weather was being pushed south.
Still, it's a tour sent from heaven for its guest soloist, Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera.
Havana-born Herrera first played with Cuba's major orchestra as a 12-year-old, insatiable student who performed the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. He hoped to play again with them one day, but left Cuba for the U.S. Since then, it has been difficult for him to visit, let alone perform there.
If you go
What: National Symphony of Cuba, with Ignacio Herrera, piano soloist
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples
Admission: $25 to $59; students, $25
Tickets: 239-597-1900 or www.thephil.org
Herrera now lives in St. Paul, Minn., touring with his band Cubanismo, teaching at Minnesota's McPhail Center for Music and performing in classical and jazz concerts. This is his first tour with the National Symphony of Cuba.
"I am living a dream being able to play with all the symphony orchestras of the world," he said in a telephone interview from Illinois before the East Coast dates. "And now, doing it in this country with the orchestra of my country is the height of that dream."
One partnership has led to another; in December, Herrera will appear with the orchestra in Havana.
This is not only groundbreaking for Herrera. It is the first U.S. tour for the symphony since 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power and instituted a communist government on the neighbor island to the U.S.
Windows between the two countries have begun to open recently, Herrera declared.
"We're taking this opportunity to open a window that government has given to Cubans, and we hope it's the beginning of real cultural exchange between Cuba and the U.S.," he said.
Americans have been as excited to see them as the Cuban orchestra has been to perform. Several bookings turned into a monthlong regional tour of the East.
"Our first three shows have been almost sold out," Herrera recalled after the first week. "The sound of the orchestra has been fantastic."
When the orchestra arrived in Kansas City with the main tube and bell of a French horn badly mangled, a local repairman devoted his day to rebuilding the instrument.
The symphony has been so busy, in fact, that there has been no time to fraternize with colleagues from U.S. orchestras, which Herrera said they would like to do.
"Sometimes the orchestras were out of season," he said. "I think down in Florida we may be able to meet with other musicians. I hope so."
In Naples, the program is meant to show the orchestra's versatility. First, it's working with two different conductors — music director Enrique Pérez Mesa, and Guido Lopez-Gavilan, composer of "Guaguancó," a lively, sensual dance written for solo piano, with percussion.
There's a Gershwin opener, appropriately, his "Cuban Overture," and "La Comparsa," another Cuban work, on the program. It's an infectious romp that turns the strings into percussion and tempts audiences to hip-roll out of their seats.
Then the symphony will do an about-face into a classical favorite, the electrically charged Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4, "The Italian."
The symphony's appearance is a shared effort of the Phil and ArtsNaples World Festival (www.artsnaplesworldfestival.org). It's a spicy appetizer for the Latin and Spanish culture-themed week coming May 11-18.
Artistic director William Noll felt this orchestra was a good fit with Southwest Florida, and at the right time.
"People need a break from the election hype. This is a great way to take a breather and enjoy some great music by these wonderful musicians," he said.