Minnesota Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba Garners National Recognition

The Minnesota Orchestra’s May 2015 visit to Cuba was ranked as one of the Best Classical Music Events of 2015 by the New York Times. [1]

According to the Times’ Michael Cooper, “It was not just the mojitos or the Beethoven and Prokofiev, or the fact that an American orchestra was at the vanguard of the nation’s rapprochement with Cuba that made the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour of Havana in May a high point of the year. It was also the way the quickly-put-together tour signaled that the orchestra, which had been brought to the brink of death during a bitter 16-month lockout that ended in 2014, was back and was thinking big. . . . The Havana tour was one of those hopeful moments [for classical music] this year.”

This accolade reminded me of my listening to the Orchestra’s two concerts live from Havana on Minnesota Public Radio with tears of joy in my eyes. Arranging those live broadcasts itself was an amazing technological accomplishment by MPR and many others.

Havana audience

One of the pieces at the Friday concert was Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez. Later I learned that there was tension between Fernandez and the Orchestra’s Music Director, Osmo Vanska. In rehearsals Fernandez had his own sound technicians, who made the piano sound louder than the orchestra. Naturally Vanska did not like this and had his sound technicians manipulate the pianist’s system so that it would not sound louder than the Orchestra’s. (To the right is a photograph of the audience at Friday’s concert.)

The Saturday concert, to my surprise, opened with the Cuban and U.S. national anthems. Subsequently a violinist in the Orchestra told me that minutes before that concert he looked again at his music for the Cuban National Anthem and noticed it said, “Copyright 1952, U.S. Army.” He panicked, thinking they might not be playing the correct national anthem, and immediately took the sheet music to the Spanish-English interpreter assigned to the Orchestra. Fortunately she could read music and confirmed it was the right one.

Cuban anthem

A few minutes later at the start of the concert, the violinist said, Vanska had all the musicians stand and face the audience while motioning for the audience to do likewise. The audience did not know what was happening and only gradually rose to their feet. When the music started, the Cubans in the audience initially did not recognize their own anthem, but soon started singing with tears in their eyes. After it was finished, they were even more surprised to hear the Orchestra play “The Start-Spangled Banner” with the Americans in the audience lustily singing the words. (To the left is a photograph by Travis Anderson of the Orchestra playing the Cuban national anthem.)

These concerts were not the only activities for the Orchestra’s musicians in Cuba. They “played with students in a number of settings . . . [and] marveled at the high quality of their play in spite of poor instruments. The Minnesotans brought small gifts for the students, who have trouble obtaining basic items: rosin for the string players, who rarely get to change the horsehair on their bows, and mouthpieces for the brass players.”[2]


In one of those sessions with Cuban students, for example, Anthony Ross, Minnesota’s principal cellist, played the students a Mark Summer piece that he said was popular with cello students in America. Then they broke up into small groups, and Ross had a young Cuban cellist use Ross’ beautiful cello. (To the right is a photograph of Ross and the Cuban student.) At a class on conducting, Vanska told one student that his hands were “very natural” and fielded questions from a recent graduate who wanted advice on how to conduct Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.”[3]

Vanska clarient

After Saturday night’s concert, Vanska and some of the Orchestra members went out to Habana Café, where Orquesta Aragón, a Cuban charanga group, was playing. The Cuban group soon was joined by some of the Minnesotans to play “Dos Gardenias,” the bolero that Ibrahim Ferrer sang with the Buena Vista Social Club. Charles Lazarus, a Minnesota trumpeter, told the crowd that there was “a very iconic trumpet solo at the beginning,” of the piece, but that tonight it would be played on the clarinet by Vanska..“By early Sunday morning he was playing clarinet in a decidedly more tropical vein as members of his orchestra and the Orquesta Aragón — think of them as El Conjunto de Minneapolis, perhaps — played a mixture of jazz and Cuban music.” (To the left is a photograph of Vanska on clarinet with some of the Minnesota musicians and the Orquesta )[4]

Thanks, New York Times, for reminding us of this wonderful event for the Minnesota Orchestra. Bravo! Bravo!


[1] The Best Classical Music of 2015, N.Y. Times (Dec. 9, 2015). The Orchestra’s trip was discussed in previous posts: Minnesota Orchestra To Go to Cuba (Feb. 13, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week (May 11, 2015). See also Minnesota Orchestra, Cuba Tour Press and Broadcast InformationPhotos: A look back at the orchestra’s trip to Cuba, MPR (May 19, 2015).

[2] Cooper, Minnesota Orchestra, in Groundbreaking Cuba Tour, Sells Out House, N.Y. Times (May 16, 2015).

[3] Cooper, Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Trip Puts It in the Cultural Vanguard, N.Y. Times (May 14, 2015)

[4] Cooper, Fire and Ice: Minnesotans Join Orquesta Aragón in Havana, N.Y. Times (May 17, 2015)





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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

5 thoughts on “Minnesota Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba Garners National Recognition”

  1. Comment: Profile of Minnesota Orchestra’s President

    Kevin Smith, the President of the Minnesota Orchestra, was an important actor in arranging the Cuban trip and bringing the Orchestra back from its fractious labor dispute. He is profiled in Royce, Minnesota Orchestra ‘s Kevin Smith: Fanfare for an uncommon leader, StarTribune (Dec. 19, 2015), http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-orchestra-s-kevin-smith-fanfare-for-an-uncommon-leader/363021491/.

  2. Comment: NPR Commends Minnesota Orchestra for Cuba Trip

    The Minnesota Orchestra’s May 2015 trip to Cuba was the first of three of classical music’s “surprising stories” of the year for NPR. The Minnesota ensemble was “the first major U.S. orchestra to perform on the island since 1999. For the musicians, the trip is more than just musical diplomacy.” The entire article appeared under a photograph of Music Director Osmo Vanska conducting the Orchestra in Havana.

    Huizenga, Classical Music In 2015: the Year in Review, NPR (Jan. 4, 2016), http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/01/04/461908315/classical-music-in-2015-the-year-in-review.

  3. Comment: Minnesota Orchestra Obtains Additional National Attention

    David Allen in the New York Times offers another positive piece about the Minnesota Orchestra in anticipation of its concerts at Carnegie Hall in early March. He compliments the Orchestra’s musicians, management and community for staging a marvelous comeback from the 16-month labor dispute that silenced the Orchestra’s official concerts.

    He quotes Osmo Vänska, the Orchestra’s Music Director, ““This orchestra is stronger. It is playing better. It is in really good artistic shape.” More generally, Allen states, “the heat of the lockout forged a rare bond between orchestra and audience; the hope now is not to let it corrode. Dreadful as the labor strife was, all agreed that an orchestra better suited to the future has emerged.”

    This new Orchestra includes musicians being “placed at the organization’s core. Their faces beam more prominently from programs and wall displays than at most other orchestras. They sit on governing committees that also include board members and staff. They work with an 11-strong management team . . . who have been keen to continue innovations begun by players during the hiatus, including a Symphonic Adventures series aimed at high school students.” The musicians also are involved in setting the artistic content of their concerts.

    The Orchestra’s local newspaper, the StarTribune, also wrote about the importance of its upcoming Carnegie Hall concert featuring two Sibelius symphonies and the Finnish composer’s violin concerto with soloist Hilary Hahn. Michael Cooper, a New York Times critic said, “”Even before the [labor dispute] disaster, Vänskä and Sibelius were a draw. Now, they’re not just playing Sibelius, but they are playing Sibelius after going through hell and back. That ups the ante.”
    Allen, The Minnesota Orchestra Rebounds from a ‘Near Death Experience,’ N.Y. Times (Feb. 25, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/arts/music/the-minnesota-orchestra-rebounds-from-a-near-death-experience.html?_r=0

    Royce, Live from New York, it’s the Minnesota Orchestra in a high-stakes concert, StarTribune (Feb. 26, 2016) http://www.startribune.com/live-from-new-york-it-s-the-minnesota-orchestra-in-a-high-stakes-concert/370338391/

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