IN: Reviews

A Tale of Two Cuban Universities: Part I


University of Havana’s Quad (NE corner)
University of Havana’s Quad (NE corner)

In the course of visiting Havana for the ten-day Mozart Festival (October 15-24) co-sponsored by Salzburg, Austria’s Mozarteum and a dozen Cuban musical and dramatic groups, I had the opportunity to talk with many inspiring collegiate musicians and their teachers.

The two college campuses I visited were the University of Havana (for two concerts, a museum visit, and a cultural tour of a neighboring street) and ISA, the newly-renamed “University of the Arts” (for dance performances, a campus walking tour, and a visit to a rehearsal of the school’s newest choral group). U. Havana has occupied a hilltop in Vedado overlooking central Havana since 1902; it focuses around a breezy complex of neoclassical buildings constructed in the 1930s (think MIT’s Killian Court with palm trees and a tank). ISA has a more recent history, as it was one of the first architectural commissions of the Revolution (for those who have seen the Arcosanti project in the Arizona desert, imagine it in a lush garden, swarming with NEC students).

ISA (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)
ISA (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

On two mornings, I heard performances in the beautiful Aula Magna hall at the University of Havana. Wednesday’s vocal concert contrasted selections in Latin and in Spanish for solo soprano, dramatically sung by faculty member Ivette Betancourt (operatic soprano from the Teatro Lírico Nacional), with European and Cuban choral music sung by the University’s chamber choir under the direction of Dámarys Gómez García (founder of the Ensemble Vocal Lira, specializing in Baroque music of the Americas and 1995 ISA graduate). Each section of the program began with Mozart, and then gave us a chance to hear some newer works and local composers. One of the many reasons I was excited to attend was that it would give me a chance to hear how the Cubans approached the pronunciation of Latin, as regional and historical approaches vary widely, even among Boston choral performances. Would I hear “Cuban” Latin?

The historic university was founded two miles to the east in Havana Vieja (the Old Town) by Dominicans in the early 1700s and remained an important seat of learning (in Latin) through the early nineteenth century. Students attended Latin mass and could acquire skills as church musicians until the campus was secularized in the 1840s, by which time instruction had switched to Spanish.

A long, dramatic escalinata (broad, marble steps in direct sunlight) leads up to the one side of the campus from the top of San Lázaro, and might remind Americans of hiking up the front of the Lincoln Memorial (but instead finding a large “Alma Mater” statue). The front surfaces of the buildings had recently been scrubbed clean, as per the Ministry of Culture’s wide-ranging project to renew and restore important historical buildings, but the back sides of many columns still showed signs of the increasing pollution from traffic (which has worsened somewhat since the early 1990s). This is a sunny and thriving campus, with almost 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students, but no “music major” within the Faculty of Arts and Letters.

University of Havana’s escalinata (Laura Stanfiel Prichard photo)
University of Havana’s escalinata (Laura Stanfiel Prichard photo)

The main quad (named for General Ignacio Agramonte) is small but verdant, with well-manicured palm trees providing shade both for groups of students chatting on marble benches and for a tank captured in 1958. Most of the quad’s buildings are shared by academic departments, offices, and museums (including the oldest in Cuba, holding pre-conquest native artifacts). We visited a Math classroom (still using chalk and overhead projectors, with students taking notes by hand), and saw parts of dynamic lecturers discussing topics in Computer Science and Spanish literature.

The campus is also only a few blocks uphill from the Callejon de Hamel, a small street that is home to Afro-Cuban musical performances, folk dancing, contemporary art by, and ritual images inspired by Santería.

Callejon (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)
Callejon (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

Since we arrived an hour early, the resonant Aula Magna hall was closed for last minute concert preparations. We wandered back down the escalinata and crossed the street to the Napoleonic Museum (corner of Calle San Miguel and Rondo), looking for some images and materials from Mozart and Haydn’s time to set the mood for the performance. When the staff found out that we were in town for the Mozart Festival, they waved the admission fee (like all Cuban museums, free to locals but suggesting an entrance fee for foreigners), and directed us immediately to the rooms featuring military clarinets, horns, and percussion).

This museum holds a huge collection amassed by nineteenth-century “sugar king” Julio Lobo, including weapons, musical instruments, and courtly uniforms from roughly 1770-1840. Many highlights (like Napoleon’s death mask) were donated by Napoleon’s last doctor, who retired to Santiago de Cuba and performed the first successful cataract operation there. The Florentine-style museum building itself has design elements from the late 18th-century including marble floors, classical columns, and massive mirrors; it was the former home of Neapolitan Orestes Ferrara, who fought for Cuba in the 1898 Spanish-American War and became a Cuban politician. The staff couldn’t think of a musical event that had been held there recently, but the larger rooms would be perfect for chamber music concerts. From the fourth-floor terrace, you can look across the street into the university.

Napoleonic Museum (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)
Napoleonic Museum (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

Like all schools in Cuba, tuition at the University of Havana is free and student cafeterias accept Cuban pesos, rather than the convertible currency available to foreigners and referred to as CUCs (roughly equal this month to the Euro or dollar). Major concentrations that seem popular right now (I talked to a dozen out of the 6,000 students) include economics, foreign language study, pre-medicine, pre-law, and math/computer science, but artistic disciplines are only pursued through private lessons, teacher-led ensembles, and student clubs. Students receive free music, dance, and art training in school in much the same way American children can participate in public school ensembles, but every student I met had been given their instrument for free, from the state.

Recent changes allow music teachers to offer private lessons for a fee, and residents living around the university can now rent rooms directly to students. Vendors and farmers may now sell their goods openly without a license, but some professions are still highly regulated (doctors may not yet practice privately, and lawyers don’t set their own fees). As a music journalist, I obtained a special “work” visa through the Cuban Embassy in Vienna (80 Euros), and then had to apply in person for an official “Foreign Press” credential after arriving in Cuba (80 CUCs). After those requirements were satisfied, I was allowed to wander freely, talk to whomever I wanted, and pose any question I saw fit. The Mozart Festival presented 2-4 musical events per day throughout Havana, giving hard-core attendees the opportunity to visit almost a dozen different performance sites.

The University’s Aula Magna hall is an impressive, resonant space; its front wall is dominated by seven symbolic paintings and its ceiling has been recently restored. The lower floor has 120 beautiful throne-like leather chairs and a central platform surrounded by three stairs, which the University’s chamber choir used, placing nine male singers (including two graduate students) in a horseshoe behind six female singers. The room is ringed on three sides with an expansive, flat balcony providing great sound and views but much less formal seating (orange plastic beach chairs, only used when the “thrones” are full).

Vocal Concert in the Aula Magna

Aula Magne (Laurta Stanfield Prichard photo)
Aula Magna (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

The Wednesday morning program (Oct. 21) began with an aperitif of four short German songs of Mozart, (Die großmütige Gelassenheit, KV125d, Abendempfindung, KV523, Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen, KV520, and Das Veilchen, KV476). It was an excellent selection for the Mozart Festival, with four contrasting Classical approaches to text-setting. Soprano Ivette Betancourt’s bright soprano voice contrasted highly with the Aula Magna’s old Petrof grand piano. Her clear diction employed a subtle approach to the hard German consonants with “ch” approaching “sh” and wider, brighter vowels (typical of Cuban Spanish). Ms. Betancourt’s increasingly dramatic interpretation of the first three songs was exciting, as the music moved towards a more Romantic treatment; KV520 was done off-book and drew enthusiastic applause. Mozart’s Das Veilchen concluded the set; this is Mozart’s only setting of Goethe, and the “Veilchen” (violet) woven through each of the three verses is often thought to be a metaphor for a young man’s heart, carelessly destroyed by a young girl. Mozart added a short recitative with added text at the end of the song: “Das arme Veilchen! Es war ein herzigs Veilchen.” (Poor little violet! It was a sweet/heartfelt violet.). Even though this was one of the simplest pieces by Mozart heard at the Festival, it was sung with such precision and contrast that it brought tears to the eyes of a few visiting Austrian listeners (and the music was complemented by the soprano’s beautiful violet gown).

The second section of the program featured the Coral Universitaria under the direction of Dámarys Gómez García. The award-winning Coral was founded in 1942, and has medalled in several international choral festivals. This semester’s ensemble of fifteen singers presented four SATB anthems in Latin by Antonio Lotti (Venice, 1667-1740), Ola Gjeilo (Norway, 1978-), and Mozart. Since the audience was Spanish-speaking university faculty and students, many of program’s Latin titles were translated into Spanish (Mozart’s Laudamus te for soprano and choir becoming “¡Alabado sea el Señor!” and “Ten piedad de mi” for Lotti’s Miserere mei Deus). The chamber choir sang competely off-book, with a smooth blend that emphasized the music’s liturgical origins. They made a warm, welcoming sound when singing a cappella and blended well with the accompanying string quartet for the two Mozart selections.

Havana Chorale in Aula NMagne (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)
Havana Chorale in Aula Magna (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

Ola Gjeilo’s simple, strophic treatment of the medieval Ubi caritas text was an apt partner to Lotti’s homophonic Miserere mei, Deus. This was not the more famous work for double choir by Allegri that Mozart heard, alternating Gregorian chant and a high quartet, but they would have been up to the challenge if it had been. Gjeilo’s anthem alternates unison chant with antiphonal responses both in unison from the full choir and in minor-mode SATB responses, repeating the text “Christi amor” several times at the end. This is a much less complex setting than Duruflé’s famous a cappella treatment (one of his four motets of Gregorian themes), but it allowed the Coral Universitatia to display their flexibility in chant-like melody.

Mozart’s Ave verum corpus was presented at a moderately fast tempo and a very hushed dynamic. Although the two violins did not start with coordinated bowings, they became unified at the high points of phrases and enhanced the subtle phrasing of the choir. The Latin vowels were particularly open and ringing, with a brighter timbre on the sustained “ah” sound than you would typically find with an American college choir. Cuban linguistic influence was most evident in the very soft plosive consonants (sometimes even omitted at the ends of words), with some modified: “c” approached a “g” or a glottal stop, and final “s” was minimized or omitted. The hall is well suited to this kind of vocal chamber music, and is surrounded mostly by university buildings (rather than the busy city streets that invade and surround the churches of Havana Vieja), but as the Ave verum concluded, one car horn sounded from nearby, luckily in the same key as the final cadence.

Two violins and piano (again on the massive Petrof instrument) provided accompaniment for the Laudamus te (from the KV339 vesper set), with Ivette Betancourt employing a fairly wide vibrato in contrast to the smooth, clean choral sound of the three student sopranos. This is a two-part work, with the choir taking over the soprano melody in a four-part texture setting the doxology: their “Gloria” had an almost inaudible “g” with a similar silent/subtle “c” in “sicut” and “secula” but a clear “ci” in “principio.” The tenor and alto sections were particularly well-balanced, with a rich bass sound and expressive and involved faces from all singers. Ms. Gómez’s conducting was clear and often restrained, preferring the right hand and gently pushing phrases along, rather than beating out strict time.

The final portion of the program featured two Cuban art songs for soprano and piano: these presented evocative combinations of recitative and arioso styles with simple (almost guitar-like) chords influenced by the French modernists and 1930s jazz. The Coral returned with four Spanish selections: Entre el espanto y la ternura (by Beatriz Corona), Candil de nieve (with music by Raúl Torres arrnged by Magaly Rodriguez), Si tú espera (a song by Eliseo Grenet and Nicolás Guillén arranged by Conrad Monier), and Mi bumba ne (a dance-song by Senén Suárez arranged by the conductor).

Dámarys Gómez conducted without scores for this set of popular choral songs, giving pitches from a tuning fork and excelling in their frequent mixed meters. Cornoa’s piece is a complex modern madrigal in the manner of Menotti or Hindemith, but it was brought to life through highly accented dance rhythms and echoing passages sung at a louder dynamic level. Candil di nueve This popular Cuban son featured a dramatic opening alto solo addressed directly to the audience, sung with intensity and humor by Lilianne Parada Silva. The piece demands a highly unified bass section (the melody shifts to the lowest register), and further verses for the alto solo were followed by more restrained, but beautiful tenor solo by Ariel Fonseca, an undergraduate majoring in translation whose excellent English and German made it possible for him to review the whole program with me after the performance (seven additional titles had originally been included in the program, and I was able to ask questions to make up for the lack of program notes). This piece is mostly a major mode homophonic choral song with no overt percussive quality: it ends with an expansive serenade which all four parts are given melodies, closing with a series of suspensions and jazz harmonies that elicited the most enthusiastic applause of the concert.

I couldn’t decide whether Si tú supiera was vocal dance music or an avant-garde piece, due to the complex, percussive “baila(r)” refrains alternating with mostly unison rhapsodic verses. The Coral struggled with this arrangement, but gelled after establishing unity of intonation and feel. Gómez’s own arrangement of Mi bumba ne demanded precise conducting in 4/4 to hold the staccato dance texture together. This tune may be familiar to Americans through the successful recordings of Xavier Cugat and tenor Yanmichel Paredes (an undergraduate in economics) was the dynamic soloist, soaring over the sung and scatted lyrics while the whole ensemble danced. For a University of Havana concert, this was one of the best possible choices to end a program: the original composer of the song, Senén Suárez (1922-2013), made his name as a guitarist in Havana, composed hundreds of Cuban hit songs in guaracha, bolero, and rumba styles, and wrote the seminal book Roots of the Son (1997) after accompanying some of the great singers of the 1940s-1950s at Havana’s Tropicana nightclub.

Concerto Concert in the Aula Magna

The Friday morning program (Oct. 23) combined young string players aged 10-14 from the Escuela Elemental de Música Paulita Concepcíon with local teenaged violin and viola soloists, under the able direction of Luis Alberto Mariño (conducting without a baton). Like the Coral concert, the floor of the Aula Magna hall included students, faculty, and guests of the Mozart Festival, but this event was more crowded due to the presence of students’ families. Less than a dozen proud parents sported cell phones (so you may eventually find this concert on YouTube, but not while Cuba’s internet bandwidth is so slow for most users). The ensemble was the most balanced in terms of gender of any Cuban orchestras I saw (almost exactly half boys and girls), unlike the ISA, Lyceum, and National orchestras, with have a much higher percentage of female players.

Matthias Schulz, Director of the Mozarteum, Salzburg With thirteen yr old violin soloist Luis Maceiro (Laura Stanfiel Prichard photo)
Matthias Schulz, Director of the Mozarteum, Salzburg
With thirteen-yr-old violin soloist Luis Maceiro
(Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

The program included six concerto movements by Mozart, played from parts made by the teachers and conductor, due to the paucity of readily-available cheap editions. Importing scores and books into Cuba results in high tariffs, so increased access to high-speed internet may soon provide Cuban musicians with the many free parts and scores available through the Petrucci Music Library (but not with downloads for most limited to documents under 1MB).

Almost all of the students played instruments given/loaned to them by the Cuban state. Many instruments had been repaired and restored through the efforts of Luthiers without Borders in Havana. BMInt published an update on their new location [BMInt article here], and The Daily Mail gave a general overview emphasizing their work on student instruments last year [here].

Luis A. Maceiro, a thirteen-year-old member of the orchestra, led off the program with a clean, breezy tone and polished cadenza in the Allegro moderato from Mozart’s Violin Concerto in B-flat. His excellent intonation in the work’s many double-stops and fiery delivery was an early highlight of the program. Hansel Pérez played the Allegro moderato from Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D Major with lyrical beauty, fully incorporating vibrato into his playing. Pérez excelled at maintaining intonation in the difficult upper register of his instrument, delighted the audience with his delicate staccato, and chose to play the full final tutti with the orchestra.

Reiner Fuentes’s warmer timbre sometimes blended into the ensemble for the Allegro of the Violin Concerto in G, with very clean trills and elegant use of vibrato that grew gradually out of pure, sustained tones. His best playing was in Mozart’s many lyrical melodies; this suited the interpretation of the movement, since Mr. Mariño relaxed the tempo to give the piece a more Andante character. The orchestra did their best ensemble playing in this Allegro, partnering well with Mr. Fuentes and establishing their best tutti playing in the opening bars. Roxana Mantanet gave an authoritative interpretation of the Allegro from Mozart’s Concerto in D, with a brilliant timbre and commanding arpeggios which rose through three octaves while maintaining perfect intonation. Like the orchestra in general, she tended to blur some passages of repeated sixteenth-notes, but responded to Mr. Mariño’s contrasts of tempo and articulation with grace.

For the Allegro maestoso of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat, Major violinist Jeyson Varona and violist Amaya Fuentes presented a precise and matter-of-fact performance. As with many Cuban string ensembles I heard this week, their technical execution of the difficult passage-work and speedy motion through scalar and arpeggiated sections showed seriousness and devotion to practice, but their lack of eye contact (encouraged by several professionals in this week’s numerous master classes at the Lyceum Mozartiano) resulted in an accurate, but not emotionally involved reading. The quartet of oboes and horns that joined the ensemble were well-balanced, although placed on the highest step of the central podium, behind the orchestra (on the floor). Their duets were sweetly played, but intonation suffered and the continuo was too quiet throughout (due to the presence of the expressive playing of only one cello and one bass to support the ensemble, without any keyboard). Everything improved in the duet section of the final cadenza, where Mr. Varona and Ms. Fuentes played with renewed vigor and admirable connection, discarding a strict metronomic approach.

Not a grey head to be seen (Laura Stanfield Prichard)
Not a grey head to be seen (Laura Stanfield Prichard)

Two late additions to the program featured Denise Carbonel in a movement from Mozart’s Concerto in A and a fantastic duo encore of Handel’s virtuosic Passacaglia, played with professionalism and flair by Jeyson Varona, violin and Juan Gabriel Eche, viola. This impressive showpiece allowed Mr. Varona to demonstrate a much more spectacular approach, and Mr. Eche solos were matched in quality by the pair’s magical chromatic chorale, spirited double stops, and precise pizzicato chords in successive variations. This was the most passionate and committed playing I heard in the Aula Magna, and a fitting way to remember the wide variety of young Cuban musicians presented under the auspices of Havana’s first Mozart Festival.

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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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. An engaging and heart-warming account, very precious to those of us who don’t get to travel.

    Comment by Ashley — November 2, 2015 at 7:58 am

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