March 28, 2018

“Old Havana” Comes to Princeton as Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra Tours the U.S.

By Nancy Plum

The island of Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida and just about the size of Pennsylvania, packs a wallop in performing arts and culture. Latin America and the Caribbean are known for indigenous dance forms and music full of percussion and brass, but Cuba also has strong roots in the Western European classical tradition. Cuba’s orchestral ancestry dates back to the 18th century, when the country’s major cathedrals paralleled their counterparts in Europe by establishing instrumental ensembles. Cuba joined the evolution of the symphony orchestra in the 19th century, and by the 1930s, Havana boasted two full symphonic ensembles. In 1959, one National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba emerged, and has been well representing the country worldwide since. 

Cuban culture has been hard to consistently experience in this country, but as doors have been opening, the National Symphony Orchestra recently slipped through for a tour of the United States. The final stop of the 90-member ensemble was at Richardson Auditorium this past Sunday afternoon, where conductor Enrique Pérez Mesa and the orchestra showed Princeton the depth of Cuba’s musical identity.

Sunday afternoon’s concert, presented by McCarter Theatre Center, blended classic orchestral repertory with music rooted in indigenous Cuban idioms. Conductor Pérez Mesa began the concert with a work recalling another country’s nationalistic struggle; Pyotr Ilyich Tchakovsky composed the popular 1812 Overture at a time when Russia was commemorating its 1812 victory over Napoleon’s troops. The opening measures of the piece were played by the National Symphony Orchestra with rich and edgy lines from the celli and violas, joined by well-blended winds. Pérez Mesa built intensity in the piece well, taking a dramatic approach to the music, but with very effective dynamic shadings. The familiar horn themes were clean, and oboist Frank Ernesto Fernández Neira provided very expressive solo playing.

As a conductor, Pérez Mesa is from a bygone subtle and minimalistic school of conducting where economy of gesture has the greatest effect. In each work, the slightest movement of Pérez Mesa’s hands could turn the orchestra in a different direction, and no energy was wasted. Pérez Mesa brought the orchestra together with a dynamic and technically brilliant piano soloist to perform Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, featuring soloist Yekwon Sunwoo. A 2017 Gold Medalist of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Sunwoo showed not only virtuosic abilities but also great sensitivity and the ability to change the mood of the music with a single note. He demonstrated a very light touch when needed, with a bit of humor in more delicate cadences. Sunwoo played the first movement cadenza as if it were a meditation for himself, with especially thoughtful descending and cascading passages and fierce octaves. He played the third movement’s technical fireworks with a bit of sauciness, bringing out the Gypsy dance effect. The accompanying orchestra showed its range from a muted palette to a very full sound, with especially lyrical solo flute playing from Zorime Mercedes Vega García.

The orchestra’s journey through the music of Cuba was through a piece by Amadeo Roldán, a composer who lived in France and Spain before settling in Cuba in the early 20th century. Roldán’s 1926 Tres Pequeños Poemas demonstrated why Roldán, even in his short life of less than 40 years, was considered a leader in the Afrocubanismo movement in Cuba. Beginning with dreamy violins and an elegant melody high in the register of the celli, this set of three short pieces showed Latin flavor in a trio of precise trombones, an unusual piccolo solo, and lively melodic lines, all accompanied by a percussion gourd. Flutist Vega García and oboist Fernández Neira created a pastoral atmosphere, with a bit of offbeat swing, in the second Poema, and a pair of clarinets, accompanied by claves and pizzicato lower strings, added an effectively jazzy feel.

The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba returned to the Western European repertory with a solid rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, playing the classical music on the delicate side, with clean ornaments and solid interplay between the winds and strings. The orchestra closed the concert with two encores, bringing Viejo Habana to life through two pieces recalling the Latin swing of a Tropicana nightclub atmosphere.