Florida Orchestra woodwind quintet members

Havana-Tampa Bay Exchange

Just a few weeks ago, The Florida Orchestra surprised the arts world with the announcement that it will conduct a cultural exchange with Cuba over the next several years, with the first visit by its musicians to Havana set for this September. That’s when a woodwind quintet comprising principal musicians from the Tampa Bay-based orchestra will head to Cuba to play a chamber concert, conduct masterclasses with musicians from the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory in Havana, and interact with musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. The quintet will also arrive with donated instruments and music accessories being collected during a drive conducted by the TFO this summer.

Many details of the exchange are still being worked out, but so far this is what is planned: First, from September 26 to 29 a woodwind quintet from The Florida Orchestra will go to Cuba. This winter, TFO Music Director Stefan Sanderling will travel to Cuba to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. In May 2012 Enrique Pérez Mesa, music director of the NSOC, will come north to lead three concerts with TFO in the Tampa Bay area, with repertoire to include local premieres of works by two Cuban composers: Carlos Fariñas’s Penthesilea: Preludio and Guido López-Gavilán’s Ritmotiv. The hope is for the entire Florida Orchestra to perform in Cuba as early as the 2012-13 season. The idea is for the exchange to start out small and let momentum and interest help it build.

Recently, SymphonyNOW chatted with Florida Orchestra Executive Director Michael Pastreich (pictured below) and Operations Director Angela Cassette about how the Cuba exchange came to be, and how it is an important part of their efforts to connect with the Tampa Bay community.

Jennifer Melick: How did you first come up with the idea for an exchange with Cuba?
Michael Pastreich: It started about a year ago with Stefan Sanderling, our music director. He was aware of our community’s ties to Cuba and felt that there might be an opportunity for us to play there. I called José Valiente, a former board member who had moved to the U.S. from Cuba when he was eight, during the Revolution. I knew he was interested in improving ties between the U.S. and Cuba, and he introduced me to a few people who might be interested in making this possible. That led to our development director and me meeting with a couple of people, one of whom gave us email addresses for the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba’s music director and business manager.

Florida Orchestra Executive Director Michael Pastreich

We talked with people active in the Cuban-American cultural community here who helped facilitate connections and advised us on things that would be particularly valuable for making an exchange to Cuba work. One was the fact that Cuban musicians could really use some instruments, and another was the fact that masterclasses at the conservatory there would be greatly appreciated.

I talked with Maestro Pérez Mesa on the telephone a few times, and we had several email exchanges. He gave me the name of someone at the Ministry of Culture, and we had a long series of phone calls and email exchanges. She then issued us an official invitation and gave us the name of the man who runs the orchestra and the conservatory. At that point, we started to tell more than just our board. We pulled together a committee, and told the musicians we working on it. We had kept it pretty top-secret before that. The next step was going to the U.S. Treasury Department, and we didn’t do any fundraising until we got Treasury Department approval.

Melick: Could you talk about the decision to first send a small ensemble to Cuba this September—rather than push for a concert by the full orchestra?
Pastreich: We have watched where there have been challenges elsewhere, and we decided to walk into this carefully. So the small ensemble is for a variety of reasons. One, it’s something we could financially commit to. And we’re hoping that helps build the excitement to raise the money for the full orchestra to go. It also gives us a chance to go there and actually experience doing a concert with them, to see how well they fill the houses, does everything run smoothly, does this work well? So far, they have just been a dream to work with.

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to engage the Cuban-American population in Tampa in different ways.”—Angela Cassette, operations director, The Florida Orchestra

Melick: What about the musical interaction between orchestras in the two countries? What do you hope will come out of this exchange artistically?
Angela Cassette: Our musicians are very excited about going down there. I think people in this community understand that Cuba is a very culturally sophisticated country. We’re completely expecting that the general population will be well versed in classical music. We’re planning on beginning to program more works by Cuban composers, and also possibly having Cuban artists come perform with us here in Florida more than we have in the past. We’re looking at this as an opportunity to engage the Cuban-American population in Tampa in different ways. And we’re excited about the orchestra getting a chance to play more Cuban music. A trip for the full orchestra to Havana would really change the way they approach the music of Cuban composers.

Melick: In the past, when your orchestra has performed Cuban music or music from other Latin American countries, do you notice a difference in how it’s received in your community?
Pastreich: No. And that gets us into one of the two main strategic reasons why we started this project. Something that the NEA study and the Flanagan report demonstrated was that the Hispanic population is the only population that is coming to the arts on a growing percentage level. I’ve been watching various arts organizations for a while, trying to figure out how we speak to the Hispanic population. And what I’ve observed is that orchestras will do a Mexican concert, and then they do Beethoven, and then they do a Colombian program, and then they do Mozart. Our theory is the reason that strategy hasn’t worked is that there isn’t a single “Hispanic” population. There’s a Mexican population, there’s a Colombian population, there’s a Brazilian population—they’re distinct populations. And if you do something from Mexico, and then you do something from Colombia, you’re not building on anything, you’re starting from scratch both times. So we decided to take a thin wedge of this Hispanic pie. Tampa is a city with the longest tradition to Cuban America—this is where the Rough Riders camped out before they went to Havana. This is where Castro came to raise money. There are 450,000 Hispanic residents in Tampa. Of that total, 15 percent—or 67,500—are Cuban. We have a huge connection to Havana, and because of that connection it made sense for us to pick Cuban-Americans. We have a task force working on this project, and their job isn’t to raise money for us to tour to Cuba. Their job is to figure out how to build a long-term relationship with the Cuban-American population. This collaboration is just one of their tools.

Melick: How are you planning to get the message out about what you are doing in the Cuban-American community at home?
Pastreich: One of the news stations here is going to give us flipcams that we’ll bring down with us. We’re working fairly closely with at least one of the stations here, and so far we have a lot of other stations that are indicating they want to come down with us to capture that. We are discussing whether we will partner with WEDU, the public television station, on some form of documentary.
Cassette: There’s been a lot of interest from the media so far; we’ve gotten a really positive response, so we’re excited about that.
Pastreich: In the first week after we announced the Cuba exchange, we were covered in the Los Angeles Times and in the largest online newspaper in China. We’ve had good coverage in Cuba proper.

“Tampa is a city with a long tradition to Cuban America. We have a task force working on this project, and their job is to figure out how to build a long-term relationship with the Cuban-American population. This collaboration is just one of their tools.”Michael Pastreich, executive director, The Florida Orchestra

Melick: How big is the task force working on the project?
Cassette: Currently we have about a dozen, including our senior staff members. But I think it’s something that is likely to expand before we’re done.
Pastreich: We’ve got about a half-dozen community members at the moment. From the musicians, we have Warren Powell—a violist in the orchestra—and Jeff Multer, our concertmaster. And of course the principal winds have all been involved.

Melick: You said earlier there were two main strategic reasons behind the Florida Orchestra’s decision to pursue this exchange, the first being a choice to focus on the Cuban community, which is culturally and historically significant for the Tampa Bay area. What was the other reason?
Pastreich: I’m a big believer in asking the Jim Collins question: What do you do best in the world? I don’t think that what the Florida Orchestra does best in the world is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic can perform that better than we can. What we do best in the world is bring the Tampa Bay area together as a single community. I have often been frustrated by politicians and business and community leaders who talk divisively and competitively about the different cities in the Tampa Bay area. When we tour to Cuba, we’re not representing St. Petersburg, and we’re not representing Tampa. We’re representing the Tampa Bay area. And in fact with our name, we happen to be representing our state. So it’s time for us to start touring, and it’s time for us to go to Cuba.

For more information on The Florida Orchestra’s multi-year cultural exchange with Cuba, visit The Florida Orchestra’s tour microsite.

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