After Thaw, Minnesota Orchestra Returns To Cuba : Deceptive Cadence This week, the ensemble became the first professional U.S. orchestra since 1999 to play in Cuba — 86 years after its first visit to Havana.

After Thaw, Minnesota Orchestra Returns To Cuba

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This weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra made history becoming the first professional U.S. orchestra to perform in Cuba since 1999. It comes following the thaw in relations between the two countries that began late last year. This was a massive undertaking. The orchestra had to rent an especially large plane, big enough to haul the musicians and an acoustic shell. A tour like this usually requires years to plan. This one had to be pulled off in months. Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr has the story from Havana.

EUAN KERR, BYLINE: This is a trip of firsts.

UNIDENTIFIED FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Ladies and gentlemen, it is our pleasure to welcome you to Havana, Cuba. The local time is approximately 1:05.

KERR: The Minnesota Orchestra took the first direct flight ever from Minneapolis to Havana on Wednesday, embarking on the first high profile cultural exchange since Presidents Obama and Castro made a joint announcement relaxing long-standing restrictions in travel and commerce last December.


KERR: And orchestral race followed the announcement. A number of groups, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, vied to be the first. But Minnesota pulled off an organizational and logistical coup by being prepared to travel in just months. The Cuban authorities were reportedly partly swayed by the fact that back in 1929, what was then the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, made its first international trip to Havana. On Friday night the current orchestra replicated that 86-year-old Beethoven program.


KERR: But Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vanska says the trip was not just about music.

OSMO VANSKA: In a way, like, psychologically, the best part of the trip that we are working together with people here. They are working together with us, and that's the whole idea.

KERR: This is the first major tour for the Minnesota Orchestra since the end of a bruising 16 month musician's lockout. There were times in a contract dispute when many fans wondered if the orchestra would survive. Now 16 months after the settlement and a management shakeup, the former antagonists are sharing an adventure. Kevin Smith is the new Minnesota Orchestra president. He came up with the idea for the trip in January.

KEVIN SMITH: ...Back together and with this kind of excitement and energy to do something is extraordinary like this. This - it's just never happened before. So it's not a matter of getting back. It's a matter of moving beyond. And I think we're doing it.

KERR: In addition to concerts Friday and last night, Minnesota Orchestra musicians travel to local music schools to hold master classes.


KERR: At the Escuela Nacional de Arte, a high school for the arts, some classes were so full, many students had to stand outside in the corridor straining to hear the lesson. Student Stephanie Anonyez moved from room to room listening through the open windows.

STEPHANIE ANONYEZ: I heard in other times about this orchestra, and there is an orchestra in Boston too. I wouldn't have thought that this orchestra came to here. It's amazing. It's really amazing.

KERR: The Minnesotans also held a side-by-side rehearsal with Cuba's National Youth Orchestra.


KERR: Students shared music stands with the Minnesota players, switching off with professionals as they played under the baton of Osmo Vanska. The ensemble, some 200 strong, played Tchaikovsky in Borodin before moving on to a piece by the head of the school, Guido Lopez Gavilan. He took the podium and had the players tap out the Cuban rhythms in the piece on their instruments.


KERR: Everyone came away with a smile but none bigger than Gavilan at hearing his students and the Minnesota Orchestra play his work.

GUIDO LOPEZ GAVILAN: (Through interpreter) It was beautiful and very exciting experience. And I know it will be unforgettable for all of us who shared it.

KERR: Like many people on this tour, Minnesota bass player Kate Nettleman says to be in Cuba at this time sharing music after having survived the turmoil of the labor dispute has been the experience of a lifetime.

KATE NETTLEMAN: And I think that that's a testament to what can happen when people dream and believe and work hard together. That's what an orchestra is. It's a group of people on a stage doing that.

KERR: Audience members at the concert say they hope more U.S. orchestras will tour the island. A woman who gave her name only as Emelia seemed to speak for many after the first show.

EMELIA: Thank you very much to Minnesota. Come back again.

KERR: The Minnesota Orchestra returns home today, but it's clear many in the organization could easily be tempted to visit Cuba again. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in Havana, Cuba.


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