Cuban orchestra gets, gives happy exchange in groundbreaking concert here

When the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba opened its first Florida concert with "The Star-Spangled Banner" Monday night, the crowd broke into cheers and applause.

And when the orchestra, in its first-ever U.S. tour, followed that with "La Bayamesa," the national anthem of Cuba, the crowd rose back to its feet and cheered again.

Through both, there was an unmistakable undercurrent of singing. The Cuban-Americans in the audience were doubtlessly thrilled to hear the anthem of their homeland; the U.S. citizens were thrilled to know they're familiar with ours. Or we may have simply been slap-happy under the strain of election fatigue: Just one more day before the commercials, the robo-calls, the half-baked charges and the barrage of media analysis would end.

Both sides were ready for the concert at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, organized by the ArtsNaples World Festival, and the orchestra delivered.

If the opening segment of the Mendelssohn "Italian" Symphony seemed a bit rushed, and if the strings didn't get the tuning they needed before Guido Lopez Gavilan's "Guaguancó," those were details that could be forgiven. Whether because of a nearly deadlocked election going on around us or the import of this debut cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba, the audience sat mesmerized; we felt the hot breath of history on our collective neck.

No Cuban orchestra has toured the United States since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In this groundbreaking, 21-city tour, the overarching rule seems to have been to avoid the quicksand of politics, down to an apparent indecision over whether to perform the Cuban national anthem in a state where so many of its refugees live.

That music director Enrique Pérez Mesa struck up the work says they've become comfortable here. But the tightly wedged windows of time in each city, possibly in the interest of keeping political probing down, has given music lovers too little time to know their colleagues so close by. There was no time to ask the mundane questions — What's in standard Cuban orchestral programs? How much do concerts cost there? What do you think of the U. S.? — that cushion the nest of knowledge from which to appreciate its music.

The orchestra stuck tightly to Latin composers, apart from Mendelssohn and George Gershwin. That often stimulated the temptation to hip-roll right in one's seat. Many of us know, if not by name, the tune to Ernesto Lecuona's vivid 1912 composition, "La Comparsa," titled for a musical parade that rolls audially by the listener. While jazz-classical crossover pianist Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera was the soloist for other works, company pianist Vilma Garriga Comas set the tone for this one with a clean and confident opening.

"Guaguancó" may be less familiar because it's new enough that the composer, Guido Lopez Gavilán, could take a turn at the baton Monday. Directing his own work, Gavilan emphasized its kaleidoscope of dance movements with more elegant smoldering and less dripping steam. There was no overdose of tricked-out brass that would reduce it to the level of the radio music you stumble on driving through Miami. For a dance often associated with foreplay, this was surprisingly effervescent.

First on the program, however, came Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," a mélange of impressions from the U.S. composer's 1932 visit there. It's the most overtly brass-laden work on the program. Spiced with tempo changes, it also calls on the strings to carry it through the currents of melody and key change. It's a meaty piece that deserves to be heard more often.

On Monday night, that was only a sample of Herrera's dexterity. In a second encore Monday night, following an orchestral romp through an Alejandro Garcia Caturla dance, he offered his own composition, "A Day in Havana."

It's a solo piano work that opens classically but gets wheels, revving into a high-octane rumble through the city, with occasional dalliance to breathe in the romantic air of Parque Almendares or stroll through the Cathedral Plaza. Herrera's fingers are everywhere at once, artfully and impossibly, a bumblebee in performance — it has to be impossible to play so many notes so quickly and so gracefully.

It was a stand-and-shout ending to a historic event.

"Viva Cuba!" shouted a happy fan as the concertgoers began picking their way out of the nearly full auditorium. And, certainly, viva la musica.

© 2012 gonaples.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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