And now, massively overdue, is the next installment of my Fall recap! I thought I should get it posted before we got to the summer.
To Cuba! On Nov. 1st, we packed our bags and headed to JFK for an early morning flight. Joining us on this second sojourn to Havana was composer Pamela Sklar and her lovely husband Michael. Heading to Cuba a second time was a bit different as I was super nervous for our first trip. We were traveling to a communist country, where none of us spoke the language, and with whom the US has mediocre (at best) relations. We were told there would be visas for us (but who really knew if they would show?) and even though we had all read a lot (and I mean everything we could), we still weren’t sure what to expect.
With this second visit, I was still a little nervous, but in a different way. I had diligently worked on my Spanish, using the every popular free app –– Duolingo –– which is great if you plan on having many conversations about what school the orange lion is going to, if the horses eat ice cream, or where the sweater store is. For more practical matters, I also practiced with various students, parents and the custodial staffs of both music schools I teach at here in New York City. From them, I learned how to say, “Did your son practice this week?” and “Watch your fingers!!”
Still with all that hard work, my Spanish is still terrible!!
(At this point, I could tell you all a long story about getting through customs. It took a long time: Lots of waiting and waiting and waiting for our visas to show up, then registering our instruments, a lesson about why you shouldn’t pack fruit in your luggage…. but that would take tons of words and I’d never get to the cool stuff.)
Even on the ride from the airport to the city, we noticed a number of differences from our first visit. First thing was the lines for gas. We had heard about the fuel shortages caused by the US embargo before leaving. Now we could see gas lines like we had in the US in the 70’s.
There’s also a familiarity with going back, so that even on a second trip we had a better idea of where we were going and didn’t feel quite so lost.
We arrived at Adrianna’s and immediately the three of us felt like we had come home. It’s nice being able to stay the in same place, as again we knew the area and surroundings. (As loyal readers may recall, we came to Adrianna via my childhood friend Vikki, whose cousin is Adrianna’s sister’s husband –– pay attention, there will be a quiz at the end of this blog!)
Our first night we headed out to dinner with a new friend, Michael Elvermann. As there are a number of Michael’s in this story, we generally referred to this one as “Cuba Michael” though German/Cuba Michael would have been more accurate. Cuba Michael was part of how we initially made it to Cuba. He is a clarinetist and conductor, from Germany, but living in Santiago de Cuba. Suzanne met Cuba Michael through her cousin in Germany… (remember –– there will be a quiz later!)
So we all headed out to a lovely restaurant that I could totally find but can’t recall the name of. * We ate and drank and told stories, mostly in English, with the occasional German, translated by Suzanne.
Cuba Michael was in Havana for a conducting program and he told us there was a concert the next night that he would be attending. It was a performance with the Lyceum Orchestra (a group that is sponsored by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation and is one of the best orchestras in Havana) finishing with a Mozart Mass. One would need to show up early to get a seat if you wanted to attend. While we all wanted to go, it conflicted with the opening concert of the festival, so we sadly said we would have to pass on this.
The next day (Saturday) was a rehearsal day for us. Our concert would be Sunday morning, so no time to waste. We rehearsed alone at first, and then, Jorge Amado arrived. This was again an exciting but scary moment. We’ve played Eidos II so many times, but this was the first time Jorge got to hear it live. Adrianna and her boyfriend Vladimir filmed a lot of this and you can see a sample here .
Jorge was also heading to the concert Cuba Michael mentioned, but again we had to pass, as duty called.
So, we headed to Old Havana for the opening of the Festival de Música Contemporánea de La Havana. The concert was being held in the Palacio de los Matrimonios, (yes, the Marriage Palace) where our concert would be the next day. Here I must be honest. I don’t remember a lot about that concert. Guido López-Gavilán welcomed everyone, and made a speech about the Festival. He introduced us and Pamela Sklar, and many other people. I know there was a very good clarinet duo, and it finished with a clarinet concerto with string orchestra, performed by students from La Escuela Nacional de Música (the National High School of the Arts). The students did a good job, but the work itself was not memorable.
By the time the concert was done I was pooped. Ready to get some dinner and sleep — but no! The whirlwind that is Ernesto Oliva Figueredo had other plans. Ernesto is a pianist, teacher, composer, and TV host. If he lived here in New York, I have no doubt he would be well known. He can tell a story in Spanish and even if you don’t understand it, you’ll understand it. He told us there was a great concert going on, and we had to go and his girlfriend, Gaby was the manager of the concert and so we could get in. Of course it was the Lyceum concert everyone had been talking about. It pays to know people!
So off we went. I’m a walker — so are Matt and Suzanne, but walking in the dark, where there were a number of lights out and not totally sure where you are going can be rough. Still eventually we arrived at the Cathedral, where this big concert was happening. After much discussion and what not, we finally got seats behind the percussion section. While not the best seats, they were highly valued: Lots and lots of people were standing, so I was thankful.
And the concert was excellent. The second half of the concert was the Mozart Mass, and the choir was small but excellent. And who was in that choir?— Jorge Amado’s parents!!
The thing was, everyone was talking about how great this conductor was — and I am sure he was. But as an instrumentalist, I was so impressed with the musicians. In particular, with our vantage point, the timpanist. She was fabulous. Just watching her preparation and execution was wonderful. It’s not a perspective I usually get to see.
When the concert ended, we all headed out and Ernesto joined us for some food. Again, lots of food, drink and stories, mostly in English with some broken Spanish (from us) in there too.
The next day was our turn to perform. We’ve done our share of strange things, but playing a concert at 11 AM that isn’t a kiddie concert was not one of them. Fortunately it was the day the clocks changed and so we got an extra hour to sleep. We headed off to the Palacio, where we were able to warm up a bit.
Now warm up is of course a silly term, as it was plenty hot in Havana. The good news was that the space on an upper floor, with an abundance of windows and a great breeze. The bad news was that it had a great breeze — not so good for keeping music on the stand!
Cuban musicians seem to be able to deal with things like heat and breeze without issue. They all carry clips and such and never appear to complain. We were last on the program and at the beginning of the concert the breeze was pretty calm.
The first work on the program was a piano trio by Chilean composer, Boris Alvardo, performed by three members of the National Orchestra of Cuba. I would tell you the musicians names as they deserve recognition, but they are missing from the program. Actually, the entire piece is missing!! What I can tell you is that the work was very difficult. Many extended techniques, with difficult rhythms and harmonies. As Matt often says, better them then us. I thought they did an exceptional job on this work.
There were a number of piano works and then a few works for an instrument I had never seen – a très. Even my mediocre Spanish knows that ‘très’ means ‘three’, so when we saw a 3-stringed guitar-like instrument, I was not surprised.
But the style of the music was surprising. It was very folk oriented. The music was very tonal and easily understandable on a first hearing, while being interesting enough to hear again. Honestly, I doubt it would be heard on a “New Music” concert here. It would considered too “main stream”, which is unfortunate. One of the beautiful things you hear in Cuba is the commingling and acceptance of many styles and genres of music.
After all this, it was our turn to play. By now, the winds hand churned up!! We began with Daniel Lemer’s Who Knows? (or Quien Sabe?) a high energy work which oscillates between a hard edged attack of sound and peaceful unfolding layers.
The next work up was Pamela Sklar’s Two Voyages. (I must say here that I love how all the Cuban’s said Pam’s name —Pamèl-la. Lots of “L” sound.) I thought this works sounded really beautiful in the lovely room we were in.
Next up was Doug Anderson’s Reverse Variations on Arkansas Traveler —sans jokes. Those who have heard AT here in the States know that this work is intended to have jokes (think: Music meets Dad Jokes) inserted between the variations. As our Spanish was…rudimentary, and we didn’t feel we had time to get others on board to coordinate the jokes, we left them out. But we found the audience still got and understood the humor in the piece, even without the verbiage.
The good news is that up to this point, those first three pieces don’t have complicated page turns, but the final piece, Eidos II, by Jorge Amado, does — and they happen quick! I was debating in my head what to do — Do we say something? In New York I would. Fortunately, while we were trying to figure it out (I think this is when Matt got up to get his keys to put on the stand) one of the workers at the venue got up and closed some of the windows. The room might have gotten a lot hotter as a result, but at least we weren’t fighting the page turns the entire time.
I can’t speak for Matt or Suzanne, but one difficulty for me is that Jorge wants me to play many of the short accented notes right at the frog of the bow. (That is the very bottom of the bow, where the small rectangular part is.) This requires ones pinky to be very strong and supple. It’s an element we spend a ton of time on with beginning violin and viola students. It shouldn’t be an issue — but when it’s 80 (maybe 90) degrees and everything is sweaty, it takes more effort then now might think. Fortunately I managed to not drop my bow!!
After the concert we had an impromptu interview with the aforementioned Ernesto (Did I mention he’d be super famous here in the US? Remember –– quiz!) and the took off for a fabulous and massive celebratory lunch at Adrianna’s.
Later that day Ernesto reappeared to take us on an adventure — but I think that needs to wait until Part 3.
*Suzanne says the name of the restaurant in Vedado we frequented was Tula. Interested parties can find them at https://www.facebook.com/elcuartodetulaa