IN: Reviews

Dateline Havana: Day 1


The cahedral (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)
The cathedral (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

Traveling to Havana as international correspondent for the Salzburg Mozarteum’s ten-day Mozart Festival promised to be the adventure of a lifetime; the first two days didn’t disappoint.

By 6am on a normal weekday, Terminal G of the Miami International Airport is crowded with passengers checking in for charter flights to Cuba. Contrary to the warnings that I should allow four hours for processing and security, my flight crew buzzed along, making it possible to go from curb to waiting room in 65 minutes. However, they don’t call those areas “Sala de Espera” for nothing, as travelers feel an equal measure of fear and hope that the flights will arrive, will be in good condition, and will depart on time (we boarded a brand new plane on time and then waited just under two hours for our paperwork to be approved). Once in the air, the flight from Miami to Havana lasts around 45 minutes, and the passengers were an equal mix of Americans on group trips (mostly mission trips organized through churches) and Cubans returning home from shopping and visiting relatives.

Travelers checked a variety of backpacks, suitcases, and, more typically, massive, bulbous cloth packages wrapped in clear or blue plastic sheeting. A few brought instruments on the flight, and I saw parts of three different Mexican Stratocaster guitars (without cases or amps) making the trip as presents. One of the church groups (from Alabama) hummed a few hymns and discussed differences between Protestant and Catholic liturgies (“Communion is also called the Eucharist and may only allow Catholics to participate… we’ll have to ask…”), while several Cubans sported brand new iPod headsets loaded with American pop.

As our flight emerged out the the low Caribbean clouds, we could see a few domes and monuments or the capital city, but we landed 20 miles south, gliding over fields, farms, and small one-story homes made mostly of poured concrete and metal. Customs was amazingly quick, with more time being spent talking in three languages about the Mozart Festival than about my difficult-to-obtain journalist Visa: the agent asked me to sing some Mozart, so I hummed the opening of the Sonata in a minor “alla Turca,” and she joined in after a few bars. Her brother studied cello at the ISA, whose orchestra I was about to hear. Our interview concluded with a big smile and a loud “Welcome to Cuba!” that surprised her colleagues.

Due to the unusual shapes and sizes of items being shipped, we spent over an hour in the baggage claim (a simple, low-ceilinged room partially open to the outside with two belts). The Stratocaster seemed to make the journey, although in pieces, and two guitars opened their cases upon request of the immigration police and then played a couple of songs for the waiting passengers.

Laura Stanfield Prichard photo
Laura Stanfield Prichard photo

Many of the concert venues I was about to visit were being built, or at least enlarged, during Mozart’s lifetime. With over 150 buildings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, the historical heart of Havana may be the best-preserved colonial city in the Americas. Stories from the Spanish Caribbean were published in several languages in Europe in the 18th century, and dramatic works set in New Spain and New France were common from the courts of Louis XIV of France and his progeny to those of their Austrian cousins in Vienna. Mozart wrote copious letters to his family during his extensive European travels widely on the Continent. Not unlike some Habañeros, he travelled frequently by foot and horse-drawn coaches, so he had an authentic sense of the contrasts and ironies of life with, and in the shadow of, old aristocratic Europe. But if he had ever been invited to Cuba, I wondered, what would Mozart do?

I enjoyed a helpful cab ride around the city, searching in vain for the government press office (“Maybe it moved? …none of these four phone numbers connect to an office… if you don’t register for the formal pass, they probably won’t come looking for you…”). We circled the vast Plaza de la Revolución, with its metal sculptural outlines of Che Guevara and a second, newer Christ-like revolutionary figure (“…not Zapata, not Fidel, not Raul, let me think on it…”). This hilltop overlooks the restored part of Havana’s Old Town, and happened to be less austere than usual, as the steps around the tall central monument to 1890s revolutionary hero José Martí were still covered with flowers brought by schoolchildren during the October 9 national celebration. Martí lived in the United States for fifteen years, basing most of his journalistic activity in New York, and traveling to Florida to recruit Cuban exiles to his cause. His exquisite, sometimes avant-garde poetry is required reading in Cuban schools (all eight Habaneros I’ve asked could recite some immediately), and one of his Versos Sencillas was applied to the lyrical dance tune Guajira Guantamera in the 1960s, becoming the unofficial Cuban national anthem.

Martí and his words appear all over Havana, and the monumental classically-influenced sculpture of him dominates the federal heart of Havana, a collection of governmental power centers that evokes elements of our own National Mall (without the Mall itself). Monolithic buildings with elements of both neo-classical and Soviet design include the Ministry of the Interior, the National Library, the TV and Radio Building, and the Teatro Nacional, where the Festival will present the National Orchestra playing three works by Mozart on Sunday. Last week, American conductor Marin Alsop and pianist Lang Lang dropped into town for an outdoor concert, and Steinway pianos was persuaded (for the first time ever) to donate an instrument. It now resides on the stage of one of the National Theater’s three concert halls.

Vieja Habana, or the part of the Old Town that is undergoing a slow-but-steady process of rejuvenation, is the most musical city centers I’ve visited, evoking elements of New Orleans’ French Quarter and Florida’s Spanish colonial treasures (both perfectly preserved and in extreme disrepair). Throughout Centro Habana and the Old Town you can always hear some combination of congas, bongos, flutes, or guitar echoing off the stone walls. Dozens of tiny shops sell bongos, homemade gourd rattles, and claves, and it’s not unusual see someone walking down the single-lane, pock-marked street towards you, strumming a guitar or singing.

The press corps, consisting of Austrian and Cuban writers, TV producers, and a dozen other international correspondents, were given a three-hour guided walking tour of the narrow streets “saved by the Revolution from the plans of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.” We stopped at four central plazas, cleaned and in various states of government restoration made possible by removing thousands of residents from the city center, including wealthy families from historical mansions. Many of the grander historic hotels have been renovated in the last 20 years, and some are named after their previous owners (including property confiscated from a Franciscan monastery and cloister). Francis of Assisi Church playing a bolero on a nine-stringed guitar (made by Blue Moon, in six courses tuned la, do, fa, si, mi, la), several family bands with traditional instruments taking requests, and an acoustic guitarist working out the chords to “Imagine.”

Typical quartet (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)
Typical quartet (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

A heavy midday downpour led us to take shelter in the terrace of the beautifully restored Hotel Santa Isabel on the Plaza de Armas near the historical Castillo; there we heard an hour-long concert by a mixed quartet playing typical Cuban songs such as “Chachacha del Corazon,” “Un bolero del amor,” “Sin Poder Ovidarte,” and “Sucesos de la Rampa.” Oscar Roberto Pérez Muñiz led the ensemble on guitar, while Javier Pérez Posada sang backup and accompanied on bongos, guitar, and an ingenious cowbell-con-pedal used in place of a bass drum. The call-and-response songs were echoed by singers Carla Posada Mesa and Danay Barnet Lao, who added percussion and flute to the mix. But no “Guantanamera” yet…

Due to the amount of foot traffic and the narrowness of many older streets, two-passenger bicycle cabs and motorized Coco Cabs (open two-three-passenger mopeds) are the traveler’s best bet if her goal is to make it through Vieja Habana to a concert. One-third of the streets are under construction (or should be), and the sections reserved for pedestrians are blocked by Spanish cannons stuck vertically into the center of the streets. I shared a breezy Coco Cab with Viennese writer and critic Rotraut Raftl on our first evening; it whisked us around the ring road that follows the footprint of ancient fortifications at highway speeds, even passing a bright blue ‘57 Chevy in order to get us to the church on time.

Much of the Mozart Festival is based around the main plazas in the Old Town, and they look like the courtyards of Venice, without the canals. Each has at least one café with musicians inside, but in general they are quiet places to move through at night, or to pose for pictures in during the day. The plaza beside St. Francis of Assisi Church is wide and spacious, with a musical instrument store near the church entrance. Plaza Vieja is more central, and is one of the older planned sections of the city, with no churches visible from its center and streets radiating out from it in all directions. The new Lycuem Mozartiano was founded in 2009, and occupies the two upper floors of a beautifully restored building shared with the Oratorio San Felipe Neri; if you are within a block of the Oratorio, you are likely to hear the sound of a student practicing on one of the many pianos in its studios ringing out over the rooftops.

The main events of the first day of the Mozart Festival were a catered, multi-media inaugural reception and the Cuban premiere of Mozart’s unfinished Mass in C Minor at the main cathedral. Both the reception and the concert had a heavy media presence and the opening exhibition featured beautiful reproductions of iconography and autograph scores from the Salzburg Mozarteum’s collections. The exhibition will remain open for the duration of the Festival, and is housed in the Sala de Diversidad on Calle Amargura, a renovated space (and home to an ecological foundation) with exposed brick walls and video screens featuring photos and recordings of local student musicians in rehearsal and concert settings.

After a four-block walk on dark cobblestone streets we reached the Cathedral, a true masterpiece of colonial design, originally built by the Jesuits in 1727. When King Carlos III of Spain expelled the Jesuit order in 1767 (with consequences partly chronicled in the film The Mission), the Franciscans took over the site and completed the vast edifice. Christopher Columbus’ ashes (or maybe those of his son) were kept here until returned to Spain after Cuba’s independence. Luckily for the audience, the vast chalky white limestone interior was restored in a neoclassical style, with the bare walls reflecting golden light.

By 8pm, a capacity crowd had gathered in front of the huge doors and four speakers welcomed the audience to the Festival. Excmo. Sr. Herman Portocarero, the EU’s Ambassador to CUba, described the support (amounting to more than 500,000 Euros) that the EU provided to ensure the success of the Festival and the Mozarteum’s collaborative educational mission in Havana. Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas emphasized Cuba’s legacy of support for the classical arts, citing the international success of ballet dancer Alicia Alonso and the increasing importance of classical music as a “unifying force” for Cuban culture. Matthias Schultz, the Artistic Director of the Stiftung (Foundation) Mozarteum Salzburg, described the three years of preparation culminating in this collaborative Festival and other ongoing projects at the new Lyceum Mozartiano, including a media library with videos of contemporary classical performers, musical appreciation classes for students aged six-twelve, and a growing library of scores and parts available in a studio setting to more advanced students. Dr. Johannes Honsig-Erlenburg, President of the Mozarteum, concluded the inaugural speeches by describing this concert as “a unique moment” which would affect “the very heart and soul” of Cuban music lovers.

Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major, KV. 313 began at 9pm, conducted by José Mendez Padrón. The superb student orchestra of the Instituto Superior de Arte was augmented by teachers from the Lyceum Mozartiano, and soloist Niurka Gonzalez composed her own cadenzas for the occasion. The mostly female ensemble consisted of 14 winds and 36 strings, clad entirely in concert black. Both the opening Allegro moderato and the closing Rondo were gentle and overly legato, but were brought to life through subtle contrasts. The audience was rapt, with a large number standing in utter silence in the side aisles throughout the performance. Mozart’s delicate filigree rang down the central nave and became occasionally blurred in this resonant space, but its sound and overall impression was very consistent with Salzburg’s Cathedral and other churches were Mozart presented large-scale works in the 1770s.

Flautist Niurka Gonzalez was as expressive physically when listening to the ensemble as she was when playing, and her thoughtful cadenzas frequently employed tasteful, two-part counterpoint in the style of Bach’s solo suites. She played a gold open-holed flute with a B-natural extension, and her dark, liquid tone was enhanced by a warm vibrato. A gold medal winner and current professor of flute at ISA, Gonzalez combined a rich, full sound with the kind of virtuosity demonstrated through her international concerto appearances, her solo work with the Centro Nacional Música de Concierto, and on her award-winning CD Flauta Virtuosa (2002).

After a brief intermission, five local choirs and the ISA orchestra, enlarged to 50 members due to the larger wind requirements, took the stage and began Mozart’s unfinished Great Mass in C Minor, KV. 427 (at 9:40pm). The choral conductors performed with the large ensemble, which filled the marble stairs between the orchestra and the Carrerra marble altar. Recently restored mosaics gleamed and frescoes by Italian painter Giuseppe Perovani XXX

Cuba’s official position on religion has altered somewhat in recent years, with Fidel Castro benefiting from the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II. Practicing Catholics are allowed to join the Communist party, and the state is officially described as “secular” rather than “atheist.” There is a much greater tolerance of religious observance than in the three decades following the 1959 revolution: it was considered a rival to the government and focus for dissent in 1961. Older church-goers I spoke to described having limited access to jobs and schools, but since the 1990s, many churches have re-opened for public masses, special services, and public concerts made possible through reconstruction projects supported by Havana’s architectural historian.

For such a diverse ensemble, the choral sound was highly unified, and although dominated by the pure, youthful soprano sound, cut through the orchestral texture. By choosing extremely brisk tempi, José Méndez Padrón made the faster choral passages seem more like operatic coloratura, and the singers rose to meet his challenge. The string sound was more lyrical than incisive, and the brass were effective partners to the singers in the vibrant Sanctus, contributing the most expressive dynamic contrasts of the evening.

I sat near the front, next to one of the massive supporting columns, and was surprised to see a variety of sea creatures looking back at me from the fossil-bearing limestone blocks. The bright, ringing surfaces perfectly reflected Mozart’s music, as they were unobscured by complex Baroque ornaments and allowed for a reverberation of two-seconds, enhancing dramatic pauses and dynamic contrasts.

Although Mozart chose to alternate choruses with extended arias for solo voices, the choral singers remained standing throughout. They sang with impeccable diction and a relaxed, fluid quality that was minimally expressive but effective during long crescendos. The Gloria began much faster than I have ever heard it, creating a wash of sound where more articulation was needed. As the evening wore on, the chorus became more focused, and their best work was near the end of the work, with surprising contrasts of dynamics and style in both the Credo and Osanna (sung before and after the final Benedictus quartet). The choirs included the Coro de Cámara de Matanzas (dir. José Méndez Valencia), Coro Exaudi (dir. Marîa Felicia Pérez), Coro Scholla Cantorum Coralina (dir. Alina Orraca), Ensemble Vocal Luna (dir. Wilma Verrier) and the ISA Chamber Choir (dir. Grisel Lince).

Thea capital at night. (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)
Thea capital at night. (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

German soprano Claire Elizabeth Craig and Cuban soprano Bárbara Llanes excelled in their highly contrasting arias. Craig used a gentle, sustained approach that has made her a favorite young Mozart specialist in Salzburg and Vienna since her graduate work at the Mozarteum from 2012-14. Her Kyrie was crisp and clean, with no excessive vibrato. The end of the beautiful Et incarnatus est showed off her voice at its most instrumental due to long melismas. Mozart repeats “et homo factus est/and was made Man” endlessly and demands a sound that can pair perfectly with oboe. Her substantial contribution to the success of the concert made me look forward to her weekend solo recital of Mozart and Schubert songs in the nearby Oratorio San Felipe Neri. Llanes’ voice was appropriate for the difficult Laudamus te, a fiery showpiece spanning more than two octaves. She took an incredibly fast tempo, making the sixteenth notes sound more like flourishes, and using more operatic vibrato and less point to the voice than Craig.

Mozart gave the tenor and bass much less to do, although he probably would have enlarged their roles if he had finished more than two sections of the Credo and any part of the Agnus Dei. Roger Quintana was excellent in the SST trio Quoniam tu solus sanctus, with a clear, light timbre that held the ensemble together, in spite of their placement right at the feet of the audience. His contribution to the Benedictus was sweet and light, contrasting with Amhed Gómez’ darker, rougher baritone.

Only one element from outside the cathedral invaded the sacred space created by this well-prepared collaborative event: just as the first sustained tones of the Qui tollis peccata mundi began to ring out, the high-pitched whistle of a bicycle-taxi driver shrieked through the night. A murmur swept through the audience, who then settled back to enjoy the rest of this historic moment: Mozart’s Great Mass had finally arrived in Havana.

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

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