John Frayne: Let's hope first visit by Cuban orchestra won't be the last

The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba is making its first tour of the United States. Founded in 1960, the same year as the Fidel Castro-led revolution, its appearance Oct. 17 in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is surely a sign of thaw between the U.S. and Cuba.

Before the music began, an official of the orchestra said that this was its second concert in the U.S. and that we would hear a special Cuban style in performing music, and he spoke truly. After a long session of tuning, choir by choir, the music director, Enrique Perez Mesa, began the concert with "The Star Spangled Banner," followed immediately by the Cuban National Anthem, "The Bayamo Anthem," by Perucho Figueredo, first sung at the Battle of Bayamo in 1868 against the Spaniards. These were followed by hefty applause, suggesting an overall feeling of goodwill in the audience.

The first work on the program was George Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," a souvenir of his vacation in Cuba in 1932. This piece was first called "Rumba," and it seethes with the rhythms of that dance, as well as other touches of Cuban musical atmosphere. Gershwin brought back from Cuba a suitcase full of Cuban percussion instruments, including the maracas, bongos, claves and guiros, and their use permeates the piece.

The orchestra played this Gershwin work with great gusto. This work has in the past impressed me with its high spirits, but I think that Gershwin tries to work out too many ideas — at the same time.

Next came that most American piece of the 20th century, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." As promised, we were treated to a performance in a relaxed, somewhat laid-back Cuban manner. During some of the bluesy segments, the members of the orchestra snapped their fingers in accompaniment. A digital pizzicato?

But the big attraction was the piano playing of Ignacio Herrera, known to his fans as Nachito. He does not so much play the piano, but rather takes it by assault. He performs at times with phenomenal speed, with his right hand moving faster than the eye can follow, and the sounds produced may seem a blur to the ear. He freely embellished and expanded the solo sections of the Gershwin score, and that freedom is surely in the jazz tradition.

The orchestra, conducted by guest conductor Guido Lopez-Gavilan, played forcefully and loudly, sometimes even drowning out the near frenzied playing of Nachito. The opening clarinet solo had a tiny flaw in it. The "Rhapsody" was followed by a standing ovation.

It is unusual for the soloist in a concerto to play an encore, but this was not a "usual" evening, and Nachito played "La Comparsa" by Ernesto Lecuona, whose tunes such as "Siboney" are well remembered.

He brilliantly played this piece by a composer who, disenchanted with the Castro regime, left Cuba and went into exile. After this work, the audience roared, and stood, and as the evening wore on, we were to spend much time on our feet.

After intermission came another tribute to the rumba, this time composed by Lopez-Gavilan, who had conducted "Rhapsody" and returned to conduct his own work, "Guaguanco," the name of a popular variant of the rumba. This work was well-crafted with many attractive percussion solos. Nachito joined in at the piano and helped drive the work on to an exciting, if flashy, climax.

The "Italian" symphony of Felix Mendelssohn, conducted by Perez Mesa, was the last work on the printed program. It received from the conductor and orchestra a lively, spirited, but somewhat "rough and ready" performance.

The audience reaction was strong enough to call for an encore, and who should stroll out to join it but the star of the show, Nachito?

Plied with some sheet music by the conductor, he joined the orchestra in "Dandon" by Cuban composer Alejandro Garcia Caturla (1906-40). This work had a happy tune, and we were invited to clap along, and we cheerfully complied. The piano part evoked brilliant playing from Nachito, and this resulted in another standing ovation.

And another encore! This time it was "Zapateo Cubano," a folk song arranged by Aldo Rodrigues. Nacito began with a solemn opening, but then came the fireworks, with repeated climaxes to a wow finish which evoked cheers.

The concert's ending seemed to leave the audience in a cheerful daze. Cubans, come back soon!

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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