Listen while you can, Miami. The most in-demand classical music ticket tonight is to the sold-out concert by Simone Dinnerstein, one of the finest classical pianists in the world, with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra at the New World Symphony’s New World Center. The concert is part of a short U.S. tour supporting Mozart in Havana, a CD Dinnerstein and the Cuban group recorded together, which has garnered rave reviews from U.S. and international press.
All of this is a direct result of the opening between the U.S. and Cuba orchestrated by President Obama.
Dinnerstein played with the Lyceum Orchestra on her first trip to Cuba in 2015, and was astonished by the passion and dedication of its young musicians. Made up of conservatory students and new graduates, and their teachers, the orchestra is a kind of Cuban equivalent to the New World Symphony, whose musician fellows (not performing tonight) are also new conservatory graduates.
Dinnerstein was enchanted – as so many are – by Cuba’s sense of other-worldly seclusion, and by the passion and lushness that Cubans so often bring to artistic expression.
“You go to Cuba… and it feels like going to this secret world,” she told NPR’s Morning Edition soon afterwards. “You don’t really associate classical music with Cuba. It turns out that they’re really being beautifully trained there, and it was a real joy to play Mozart with them… they just played so beautifully. They were really listening.”
(Her reaction has been born out by reviews of Mozart in Havana. Britain’s The Guardian called it “buoyant, robust and elegant,” and Colorado Public Radio said the Cuban ensemble plays with illuminating “passion and intensity.”)
She was also astonished by how those young musicians, like artists of all kinds on the island, cope with shortages and difficulties their American or European counterparts never encounter. The Lyceum string players tuned their instruments very low to reduce stress on the strings (higher pitches require tighter strings), because they couldn’t replace them if they broke. Some of the violinists used telephone wires for their E strings. (On my first visit to Havana, in the late 90’s, I saw dancers in a ballet troupe headed by Alicia Alonso’s daughter Laura Alonso – whose tense relationship with her famous mother meant a tense relationship with authorities – rehearsing in broken, mismatched pointe shoes, in a building whose walls were literally crumbling.)
And so Dinnerstein (who speaks no Spanish – giving new credence to the cliché of music being a universal language) returned to record with the Lyceum Orchestra last June. They made the record in three nights, in a 17th century church turned concert hall in Havana Vieja, starting at 11pm (when Havana’s favorite telenovela, blasting from the city’s TVs, ended), working around jackhammering neighbors and barking dogs. Back in New York, she put together presenters, fundraisers, and friends to support the tour; families in her Brooklyn neighborhood are housing the musicians, and New York’s WXQR signed on as a media sponsor.
You can hear Dinnerstein talk at length about the project, and get a taste of the music, in this episode of Joshua Johnson’s NPR show 1A. Here’s hoping the Havana Lyceum Orchestra will be back, and that projects like Mozart in Havana will continue.