Minnesota Orchestra returns to Cuba — 85 years later

The Minnesota Orchestra will perform two concerts in Cuba next month, becoming the first U.S. orchestra to give performances in Cuba since President Obama took steps to normalize relations between the countries last December.

At the invitation of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, music director Osmo Vänskä and the orchestra will perform as part of Havana’s International Cubadisco Festival. One of the two concerts they play will feature the Beethoven “Choral Fantasy” with the Cuban National Choir and Cuban pianist Frank Fernández.

Cuban pianist Frank Fernández.
Cuban pianist Frank Fernández.

The trip, which will also include community engagement activities, provides a modern-day link to the Minnesota Orchestra’s storied travel history, which includes tours to Havana in 1929 and 1930.

“We are honored to have received this invitation from the Cuban Ministry of Culture,” said President and CEO Kevin Smith. “In the orchestral world, the logistics of scheduling frequently make it challenging to move quickly, but our musicians have embraced the possibility of giving these performances with great flexibility on a short time scale and offered to postpone a vacation week in order to take advantage of an incredible opportunity. It will be the Minnesota Orchestra’s privilege to perform for audiences in Havana.”

Music director Osmo Vänskä.
Music director Osmo Vänskä.

The performances will be held on Friday, May 15, and Saturday, May 16, at the Teatro Nacional, one of Cuba’s largest theaters. The first night will have an all-Beethoven program. In addition to the “Choral Fantasy” and the “Egmont” overture, the orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” which the then-Minneapolis Symphony played on its inaugural visit to Cuba in 1929.

On the second night, the orchestra will play music of the late Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla (1906-1940), the Symphonic Dances from the musical “West Side Story,” by Leonard Bernstein, and the “Romeo and Juliet” suite by Sergei Prokofiev.

The performances will take place as part of the International Cubadisco Festival, an annual music festival that also encompasses one of the most important recording competitions in the Cuban music industry. The theme for the 19th annual festival, running from May 15 to 24, is symphonic and choral music.

Concertmaster Erin Keefe.
Concertmaster Erin Keefe.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s touring history dates back nearly to its founding in 1903. Early on, the ensemble was nicknamed “the Orchestra on Wheels,” because of its frequent and lengthy cross-country train travel.

In 1929, the orchestra extended its annual winter tour to accept an invitation to Cuba, and on January 29, the Minneapolis Symphony boarded a steamship to Havana and for the first time left the continental U.S. Led by then-music director Henri Verbrugghen, the tour was a success ó two Havana concerts were sold out within 24 hours, so a third concert was added ó and a return visit was planned for the following year. The 1930 visit also encompassed three performances before 2,500 people.

“We are humbled to be a part of the exciting process of reestablishing America’s cultural ties with the nation of Cuba,” said concertmaster Erin Keefe. “This tour represents a unique chance to bring two cultures together through music, and we could not be more grateful for the opportunity.”

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