Dispatch from Havana: The Havana Lyceum Orchestra

June 28, 2017, 7:18 PM · In October 2016, conductor Marlon Daniel asked me to join him for a trip to Cuba for the purpose of documenting both master classes and his time conducting. What started as a 'simple writing assignment' - as well as a tremendous opportunity to see a nation closed to Americans until very recently, turned into a tremendous educational journey and one of the most meaningful trips that I have ever taken.

On Tuesday, May 2, Marlon Daniel, violinist Eric Silberger and I hailed a taxi in the Vedado district of Havana that took us on a fast ride on the Calle Malecon into Old Havana, where we then walked to the Lyceum Mozartiano de la Habana where Eric Silberger gave the first of two master classes and Marlon rehearsed the Havana Lyceum Orchestra (Orquesta del Lyceum de la Habana).

Currently wrapping up an eighteen-day east coast tour with pianist Simone Dinnerstein, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra was founded in 2009 in collaboration with the Lyceum Mozartiano de la Habana, an institution founded jointly by by the office of the Historiador de La Havana Eusebio Leal, the Universidad de las Artes (the most important institution in Cuba for musical training) and the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation.

Havana Lyceum Orchestra
The Havana Lyceum Orchestra.

The Havana Lyceum Orchestra is comprised of students, recent graduates and professors from the University of the Arts, the National School of Music and the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory. Since its founding in 2009, the Lyceum Orchestra has performed to critical and cognoscenti acclaim both in Cuba and throughout the world: in 2015 the orchestra made its European debut with Cuban flutist Niurka Gonzales during Salzburg's annual “Mozart Week”, and At home in Havana, the orchestra has quickly established itself as an important element of western classical music performance, having won a series of Cubadisco prizes for its work.

During the first week of May 2017, Marlon Daniel prepared the Havana Lyceum Orchestra for a concert that took place on May 6 that featured Beethoven's “Coriolan” Overture, Mendelssohn's “Italian” Symphony, and Max Bruch's Concerto No. 1 in G Minor. The week also consisted of master classes that were taught by Mr. Kameda, Eric Silberger, and myself that were taught at the Lyceum Mozartiana, which is housed in the same beautifully-restored seventeenth century building as the Oratoria San Felipe Neri.

In a recent Broadway World interview chronicling the orchestra's east coast tour, pianist Simone Dinnerstein commented on the the orchestra's “commitment to listening and to rehearsal, and by their desire to explore music which can too often be worn away by familiarity.” This is something that I saw as well: not only did concertmaster Manuel de la Cruz and principal second Jenny Pena consult and work on passages of the first movement of the Mendelssohn before rehearsals and during rehearsal breaks, but many members of the Havana Lyceum could be heard working on their orchestra parts either alone or in impromptu sectionals during those times.

Listening to the complete orchestra in rehearsal, it became very clear that the Havana Lyceum Orchestra is a special, important, and magical entity. The level of rhythmic precision in the Coriolan Overture was both stunning and “complete” from the first reading, and the level of attention to compositional detail was truly impressive. During the rehearsal period Marlon Daniel effectively tested the orchestra, taking the string section to its limits, and it was amazing to witness the level of attention and adjustment taking place during this first rehearsal. The transitions from loud to soft dynamics were beautiful and poised, with the strings never losing their presence during exquisite pianissimos that allowed the winds to be heard clearly. Honestly, I did feel as if I were listening to the overture for the first time: even with healthy dynamic contrasts, neither clarity nor beauty of sound were overlooked.

Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony sounded as the true orchestral showpiece that it is under Marlon's direction, with the first movement being performed with both excitement and elegance. It must be noted that the string section was seated with the first and second violins sitting across from each other, with cellos and violas inside on the right and left, respective. While this configuration can at times lead to balance issues, that was not the case for the violinists of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra – if there were ever a true (if I may) “level playing field”, this violin section is a prime example.

Yes, a level playing field – and a very high one at that. During three days of masterclasses I heard tremendous performances of the Ravel Tzigane, Ysaye's hair-raising, sonatas by Beethoven, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and concerti by both Brahms and Mozart. Havana-born violinist Janet Campbell, who currently teaches in Jamaica, shared some insight into musical education in Cuba.

Janet also shared a glimpse of music education in Cuba: “From the beginning, students are taught to read music. For the advanced students, we use Galamian techniques as well as concepts from the Russian school. In schools, there are three exams per year: the first is with scales and technique, the second is playing pieces and the last is playing on concert, depending on the level of the student.”

While Americans did not have direct access to Cuba due to the United States embargo against Cuba (1958-2014), the fact that a very high standard exists should not be surprising: as in ballet (Carlos Acosta) and jazz (Arturo Sandoval), violinists Andrés Cárdenes and Harlem Quartet member Ilmar Gavilan are just TWO of many Cuban musicians currently performing on the world's stages.

“I was in high school when this orchestra started,” Janet shared. “As the orchestra has grown, there has been tremendous assistance from the Salzburg Mozarteum including the donation of instruments and supplies.” As necessities such as strings are hard to come by, many people throughout the world have been delivering or taking musical supplies to Cuba.

This week featured the second time witnessing Marlon conduct the Bruch G Minor Violin concerto, the first being while playing in the orchestra of the 2016 Colour of Music Festival with French violinist Romauld Grimbert-Barre. 1997 Henryk Szyerng International Competition winner Koh Gabriel Kameda was the soloist for the program in Havana, and it is no wonder that he has since that victory gained international recognition as a great artist. With an effortless technique and great musical conviction, Mr. Kameda shaped phrases with his bow arm in a manner hallmark of the most revered soloists. Mr. Kameda was equally responsive and flexible, joining his colleagues as if playing the most intimate of chamber music works while simultaneously remaining the consummate collaborator during this journey, partnering effortlessly with both Marlon and the orchestra.

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