The Minnesota Orchestra’s tour to Cuba in 2015 took President Obama’s promise of a new relationship between our countries and shaped it into a reality for Cubans and Americans alike. Those five days in Havana were a revelation to the 165-member coalition of musicians, staff, audio engineers, board members, press, and patrons. Flying on the first nonstop charter flight from the Twin Cities to Havana, we landed with only the foggiest of ideas of what to expect in a country so long forbidden. With no expectations, no yardsticks, no barometers, we were as wide-eyed and open as children. And indeed, it was with children in Havana where some of the greatest impacts were felt. In educational workshops, masterclasses, and side-by-side rehearsals, our openness to new experiences made professional and student, Cuban and American, turn to each other with honest curiosity and a true desire for mutual learning.
Retired Minnesota Orchestra librarian Paul Gunther wrote of the tour in these pages in 2015, “It was the first of a number of firsts.” (Note: See “Minnesota in Cuba” in the July 2015 issue.) Indeed, this continues to be the case even two years later. The energy around the 2015 tour sparked the inception of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra. CAYO will bring together Cuban and American student musicians for a musical and cultural exchange designed to broaden horizons, provide youth with the highest level of artistic training, and shed light on that which can bring our neighboring countries together. Early on, we were thrilled to welcome Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä as not only an enthusiastic supporter, but as our future music director. Three strong artistic partners—21C Media Group, Classical Movements, and Minnesota Public Radio—soon followed. After receiving nonprofit status in July 2016, CAYO started building towards the goal of a full orchestra that will tour internationally in summer 2019. However, we were spurred to more immediate action by the changing politics around our countries. With the help of individual donors and a generous grant of seed money from a prestigious national foundation, we began planning a weeklong workshop, the CAYO Fall Academy. Our goal was to form an educational program that would build cultural understanding and hone musicianship skills for its pre-professional participants.
With the support of the University of Minnesota School of Music and Minnesota Public Radio, and assistance from the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Fall Academy offered outstanding educational and performance exposure to eight students—four from the University of Minnesota and four from Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte. They observed both orchestras in rehearsal, received coaching and private lessons, attended workshops in business and arts administration, performed and spoke at local elementary schools, appeared on American Public Media’s Performance Today, and gave free public performances, both in the Atrium of Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall (November 2 & 3) and at the University of Minnesota School of Music Collage Concert (November 4). Our guests from Havana, who now comprise the Crisantemi Quartet, were also celebrated in an after-hours Atrium performance at Orchestra Hall, playing Cuban music and joining Minnesota Orchestra principals Erin Keefe, Peter McGuire, and Anthony Ross, along with section violist Sam Bergman, for Mendelssohn’s beloved Octet (November 3). To foster deeper cultural understanding, the Cuban students were housed with Minnesota Orchestra musicians. This initial cohort of eight will serve as mentors to CAYO’s future members. Plans are underway for 2018, including a Winter Academy in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago for wind players, and a summer chamber tour of several cities in the U.S. and Cuba.
At turning points in history, the arts can act as a messenger, sent ahead of the document signings, as a sign of goodwill and hope for our mutual futures. And because children are the most crucial recipients of that message, there is no better way to deliver it than through arts education. CAYO is seeking ICSOM orchestra partners to provide mentoring and training on our future international tours and academies. Interested readers should contact us at email@example.com. The unpredictable politics of our time only bolsters the argument for arts diplomacy. We look forward to working together to discover how music can strengthen the fabric of society, both at home and abroad.
Note: The Author is the founder and executive director of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra, and a frequent guest musician with the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Cuban American Youth Orchestra is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, operated and funded entirely independent of the Minnesota Orchestra. More information is available on its website.