Cuban Festival Offers Wealth of Music; Too Bad Americans Can’t Hear It

Cuban Festival Offers Wealth of Music; Too Bad Americans Can’t Hear It

Roberto Valera, 2nd from left; Zenaida Romeu 4th from left; and Guido López Gavilán, far right

My week and a half at the Festival de Música Contemporánea in Havana, Cuba (October 30-November 9, 2009) was much more than a musical education: it was a remarkable artistic immersion that left me sad and frustrated that the U.S. travel ban is depriving other Americans of access to this rich culture. I heard nine concerts over ten days, with about 80 pieces by 56 different composers. The festival was largely a celebration of music by Cuban composers, although invited performers from six different countries (Spain, Denmark, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, and Japan) included compositions from their own nations. The broad theme, as announced by the festival’s director Guido López Gavilán, was music of the past, present, and future. “Contemporary” was defined very flexibly, in general to mean “not old”—repertoire spanning the 20th and early 21st centuries. (Although there was some “old” music, too, when invited guests had particular works they wanted to play, e.g. Schubert and Sarasate.)

Oddly enough, I was the only attendee from the United States and no music from the U.S. was performed (apart from arrangements of popular standards performed by a trombone quintet, and an electronic piece on a concert that I was unable to attend). Because of the economic embargo and travel ban, we have shut ourselves off culturally from Cuba, and thus we are deprived of some important and powerful music. U.S. composers are missing out on hearing this music, meeting Cuban composers and other musicians, and taking part in true cultural exchange. Cuba is the only nation that our government restricts travel to. This U.S. policy seems to have no imaginable purpose; rather it is part of a senseless feud that most people have forgotten and only our government maintains. But we are poorer because of what we are missing.

There are signs that the U.S. is permitting some cracks in the cultural wall, since a few prominent Cubans have been granted visas to visit. Ormara Portuondo was allowed in to accept her recent Grammy, and in the classical world, Zenaida Romeu recently was the guest conductor of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, the first time in six years that a Cuban has been allowed to perform in the United States. This still leaves us a good deal behind where we were over ten years ago, when a major festival, the American Composers Orchestra’s Sonidos de las Américas, brought together a great number of Cuban composers, both those who remained there as well as exiles in this country. It was an extremely important event that used music as a means to heal old wounds and to serve as a step toward reconciliation. We have to catch up to that point, and then try to move forward!

There are certain exceptions to the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba; it is possible to visit Cuba for authorized research, journalism, and approved cultural exchange. But my travel agent (at Common Ground Education and Travel Services, a Cuban travel specialist) told me that attending this festival would not be one of them: attending a festival that is organized by Cubans would fall under the heading of helping the Cubans economically. Thus instead I went for my research purpose of interviewing women composers (which I did, very diligently) rather than to attend the festival.

The grey areas in the travel ban, which are large, looming, and confusing, were illustrated by the announcement earlier this season that the New York Philharmonic would travel to Cuba followed by the cancellation of the trip because the patrons who were to fund it were not allowed to go with the orchestra. This major institution, with their experienced professional staff, had been totally confused by the nature of the exceptions to the travel ban. One of the criteria seems to be: you cannot just go to enjoy yourself, it has to be work. (Don’t enjoy this, just work! I kept reminding myself. Very hard in a country filled with so many talented and friendly people).

Much about the concert culture of Havana is different from what I am used to, and I sometimes found this irritating. First, it was difficult for me to learn about the festival: official websites posted different and very sketchy information; my emails to addresses listed on the websites went unanswered; and once I got there I learned from the printed overview that there had been several concerts preceding the “opening” concert that I attended.

Once at the concerts, the distribution of information did not always improve much. Except for the final “Concierto de Clausura” (closing concert, performed by the National Symphony), there were no program notes, and the lack of details like internal headings and movements of works at times made it difficult to follow where we were. In some cases performers made comments about the program at a volume that could be heard only in the first two rows. Composers were sometimes not acknowledged even when they were present at the event. At three events, I was handed two different versions of the concert program. And was it the XXIII year of the festival or the XXIV?

Although the spare quality of the concert apparatus was sometimes frustrating, I also found it oddly refreshing: attending a major U.S. symphony concert, we generally receive as a program a substantial, glossy, and full-color booklet, and then look through 96 pages of ads and lists of sponsors in order to find the four relevant pages on the music. Often, the musical experience gets bogged down under the weight of the accompanying trappings. In Cuba—the land of “no advertising”—less could sometimes be more. It put more of a focus on the musical experience, rather than being shaped as a consumer while attending a concert.

The venues were beautiful, but not always convenient or ideal. The renowned Casa de las Americas demanded an athletic climb up several flights of stairs to its performance space. (The elevator was out of order, as they so often are at everyplace that is not a tourist hotel.) Another of the principle venues, the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis, is praised for its acoustics, but outside noise from the adjacent plaza—cars, people, and at dusk a persistent chirp of a cricket or a little frog—is part of that acoustic experience.

Finally, there were also cultural differences in matters of concert etiquette. Photography by audience members was uninhibited, and to my taste distracting, starting with the TV camera operators (presumably from the government TV station, which is the only TV station) who roamed the stage and audience during the first concert.

But with all that said, I consider this festival a huge success. I cannot imagine hearing so much recent and contemporary music in the U.S. and enjoying it nearly so much. Cuban composers of both this century and the last tend to blur the boundaries of “classical” and “popular” and to assert Cuban identity through various traditional vocabularies. This melding and merging of genres is a theme, and a process that keeps Cuban musical life of all kinds infused with energy. This takes place in various ways: folk instruments (percussion but also strings) are used in a classical context; and rhythms and other features from popular, folk, and dance music are invoked or even used as structural features. The audience was not subjected to intellectual exercises intended only to impress other composers or melodic lines designed to make reading music a sport in the Extreme Olympics. Cuban music is lively, rich in emotional content, and unpretentious; it is music you are happy to listen to.

My experience at the festival left me with this clear realization: we are shooting ourselves in the foot with the travel ban. We are denied access to not just tourism, not just beaches and scenery, but significant cultural content. This was not supposed to be the point of the travel ban, but it is the result. While travel can in some cases be negotiated, for the most part U.S. citizens are dissuaded and discouraged from dealing with the confusing bureaucracy and restrictions that our government applies only in the case of Cuba. Thus we are missing out on the music—of the past, present and future—that this nation has to offer.


For most of the programs, two or even three ensembles that could have merited their own concerts were compressed together onto a single program, but this allowed listeners to take in a very broad and mostly interesting swath of musical creativity. From such a wealth of performances, I will touch a few of the highlights, although almost every piece was enjoyable, memorable, or both.

October 30, 2009

Havana’s Basilica de San Francisco de Asis was the site of many of the festival’s concerts.

The first official concert of the festival took place at the historic (1580s) Basilica de San Francisco de Asis. The program opened with Sonatina Hispánica (for piano, 1957) by Harold Gramatges, several of whose works were showcased during the festival. Gramatges, an influential teacher, composer and cultural leader, passed away last year at the age of 90. The Sonatina began with a driving moto perpetuo, reached an abrupt halt, and launched into a more neo-classical passage. Following an interlude with Spanish flourishes, an evocative melody gradually emerged. It was given a spirited performance by Yisel Rubio.

Argeliers León (1918-1991) was another influential figure of Gramatges’ generation. His Danzons 1 and 2 (from 1945), for piano and percussion (tom-toms and guiro) were compelling and freshly modern. The first framed an oscillating micro-pattern with flashy chordal outbursts. The second offered contrapuntal piano texture and vibrant dance rhythms in the percussion, building to an exuberant conclusion. Next, a set of songs by Alejandro García Caturla (1906-1940) ranged from a Debussian lushness to a more driving and buoyant use of rhythm. Soprano Maité Fernández’s voice was delicate, but her dramatic abilities were convincing. After these three historic figures of Cuban music, the rest of the concert featured works by living ones.

Efraín Amador’s Fantasia guajira (1984) explored timbral contrasts and interchanges between the laud (a flatbacked instrument with seven courses of double strings), the guitar, and the piano. Guajira is a reference to the people who live in the countryside, “the folk,” hence the inclusion of a folk instrument alongside others more typically found in concert halls.

Ariadna Amador’s Luces y Remolinos (Lights and Swirls) was the newest piece on the program (2009), and it featured the composer as the pianist, with Roviet Oses on tenor saxophone. Infused with spontaneity and energy, the sheen of the legato sax line soared over the swirling piano cascades. Riffs were interjected and the energy built in frenetic waves, eventually ascending into a playful tinkling, with the sax phrases becoming more clearly songlike. The composer told me she and Oses collaborate frequently, and that the work had some improvised elements.

El Bolero de Ravel segun [according to] Juan Piñera (2008, for violin and piano) raised themes of reflection, memory, and a musical past. Piñera’s commentary on Ravel’s Bolero was engaging, and as the strains of “My Way” gradually emerged as a theme, it became a whimsical and ironic comment of the individual against a canon both classical and popular.

October 31, 2009

The concert the next day (also in the Basilica) featured instrumental music, followed by a choral performance. Roberto Valera is a venerable Cuban (age 71) recognized and honored for his teaching, leadership, and wide range of important compositions. The program began with his 1965 Toccata for piano, built of contrasting panels: scenes of driving, building energy interrupted by static but atmospheric passages. Works by Giselle Hernández (1912-1971) followed, first a Prelude and Giga for piano. The Prelude was a Bach-like study in counterpoint, beginning with a spare texture and building in density and with gem-like beauty. The Giga was much simpler, evoking French baroque through its use of drones. Hernández’s subsequent Sonatina for violin and piano was steeped in 20th-century French style, from Debussian sensuality to the playful simplicity of Les Six. Alfredo Muñoz (violin) and Ulises Hernández were the excellent performers.

Liz Mary Díaz’s new work for string ensemble, Sincopadas, was in two movements: the first with dissonant low rumblings and spiky rhythms; the next with a bouncy theme executed in col legno. Festival director Guido López Gavilán led the ensemble, and also the next work, his new composition for chamber orchestra, Ritmarc, an exhilarating work that occasionally reminded me of Holst’s “Jupiter” with its cascading patterns and energetic drive. A slow movement was also English in flavor, but more pastoral, and the ending was hushed and breathless in solo exchanges of evocative melody. It would have been a fine conclusion to the program, but there was a whole set by a choir to follow.

Cuba has a very strong choral tradition, and I felt privileged for the opportunity to hear two fine ensembles. The Coro Polifónico de Habana (dir. Carmen Collado) performed six varied works, including several effective and colorful pieces by Beatriz Corona and Roberto Valera, works that should be part of the repertoire in the United States. Lopez Gavilán’s Canta, a powerful and rhythmic crescendo that the choir performed with great drama, ended the program.

November 2, 2009

Zenaida Romeu (Director of Camerata Romeu) and composer Alfredo Diez Nieto

Yet a third concert at the Basilica featured a set performed by Manuel Guillén (violin) and María Jesús García (piano), and after that, the renowned Camerata Romeu, directed by Zenaida Romeu. Guillén and García are a distinguished duo, invited from Spain, but their set of contemporary Spanish pieces was of little interest to me. The most notable work, Miguel Bustamante’s vividly illustrative Ferraz, felt like it could be a silent film score, as if the music was depicting some rather energetic and playful drama, even a cartoon.

Camerata Romeu, an all-female string orchestra directed by Zenaida Romeu, is (arguably) Cuba’s best-known classical ensemble. This is largely because of the fine 2002 documentary about the group (by Cecilia Domeyko), which first made me want to visit Cuba; and also because of their many recordings. So I was moved and excited to hear them, and to see them en vivo demonstrates the advantage of the group’s practice of playing by memory: it allows the musicians to connect with directness with each other, to their own instruments and playing, with the director and the audience. Although the group has grown in size to sixteen players (adding depth to its sound), it retains a sense of vital intimacy. I recognized a few of the performers from the film; others have now moved on to the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba or to teaching positions.

And two are now composing. Jenny Peña Campo is the lead violinist of the ensemble, and her Pequeñas cosas (Small things) was as lush and sensual as anything John Williams ever wrote, eventually introducing a contrapuntal passage with an angular theme. The next work, ¡Estos mundos! (These Worlds) for flute, clarinet and string orchestra, by Yadira Cobo, moved with lyrical exchanges through a pastoral mood, then jazzy and sprightly, and finally luscious and sweet. The excellent soloists were Jennifer Lugo (flute) and Susel Díaz (clarinet).

At aged 91, Alfredo Diez Nieto is the last surviving composer of his generation, and he was very much a presence at the festival concerts. His Sinfonia no. 2 for string orchestra (2007) used a craggy tonal framework and a rugged, jazz-infused language, with unexpected harmonic shifts and contrapuntal exchanges of angular melodies. A pensive slow movement led to a final movement that used a raw dissonant chord, held obsessively and even lovingly. The gestures were simple and direct but powerful.

The Camerata’s latest CD, Non Divisi, is entirely devoted to Roberto Valera’s music, and the title piece of that recording was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2008. The disc’s title track, Non Divisi, was performed on this concert. It is a work of great intensity, starting with a hushed unison melody that underlies the work, varied profoundly with agitated rhythmic figures, tremolos, dramatic cascading scales, and dense chordal elaborations. The structure is large and full of a sense of inevitable momentum. The final diminuendo was executed with great control. This was followed by another of Valera’s works, La Lenta noche en tus ojos (The slow night in your eyes), which was also intense but more intimate in mood, like an intoned, passionate prayer building in small outbursts, and then in gradual waves. (It is possible to purchase the new CD in the United States, and I highly recommend it.)

November 3, 2009

The concert the following day featured the chamber ensemble of Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, Mexico, in a program by Latin American composers.

Guido López Gavilán (far left) and the group from Zacatecas, in the Lobby of the Teatro Almadeo Roldan (l to r), Cristina Pestana Alpízar, Miguel Francisco Hudson Montenegro, Jorge Barrón Corvera, Alejandro Barrañón Cedillo

The Sonatina for flute and piano by Brazilian composer Radames Gnatalli (1906-1988) was given an excellent performance by Miguel Francisco Hudson Montenegro (flute) and Alejandro Barrañón Cedillo (piano); the work ranged from jazz-infused dance rhythms to a dark meandering piano accompaniment underneath a buoyant flute melody. The ensemble’s violinist Jorge Barrón Corvera is also a pioneering scholar who has researched Manuel M. Ponce, so we had the rare opportunity to hear unknown works by Ponce. A single-movement Trio for violin, viola and piano, written in Paris in 1929, was impressionist in feel, building in lush waves; it was given a nuanced and effective performance (violist Cristina Pestana Alpízar joined Barrañón and Barrón). And a Sonata for Violin and Viola (written in Mexico in 1938) was written effectively and brilliantly played. The second movement, a Sarabande, was modal with dark oriental flourishes. The third movement, which featured ostinatos and a propulsive rhythmic drive, suggested the neo-classical Stravinsky.

Barrañón performed several intensely virtuosic works by Carlos Chavez (1889-1978). Estudio IV (1919-1921) was riveting and relentless. Of two Etudes a Chopin (1949), the first owed much to Debussy, with its swirling flourishes that parted to reveal a luscious tenor melody. The second was moody and dark, with a rich heaviness to the peroration. Flutist Miguel Hudson joined Barrañón for a brilliant performance of Transparencias, an attractive work for flute and piano by Eduardo Gamboa (b. 1960, Mexico) which featured various folk and dance influenced styles.

November 4, 2009

The Casa de las Americas presented three varied sets in a lengthy concert. Denmark’s Adam Ørvad, a compelling advocate for the classical accordion, performed five varied works by Danish composers, spanning the last half of the 20th century. He also included a recent work by Cuban composer Louis Aguirre (b. 1968). Titled Yemayá after the Santería goddess of water and creation, the work evoked nothing of Cuban folklore and instead suggested East Indian vocabulary with its complex layering of rhythms, and stark melody that is revealed at one point. Experimental in its wide-ranging vocabulary, it explored the full range of possibilities of the instrument, with effects that evoked electronic music through startling use of extreme highs and lows (including dramatic arpeggios spanning a huge range), disjunctures and fragmentation of ideas, thick organ-like chords, and then a peroration that slowly expired (I held my breath) below the level of the audible.

Orfeón Santiago, a renowned choir from Santiago de Cuba (on the eastern end of the island) performed both on this concert and the one of the previous day. The director, Electo Silva, was too ill to attend, and he was the subject of many tributes; assistant director Daria Abreu led the group with great elegance. The choir featured music by Silva, including his well-known Misa Caribeña. Other selections included Cántico de Celebración by Leo Brouwer, which created invigorating percussive effects (with the voice) and layered rhythms. Brouwer is another highly distinguished Cuban composer. (A concert commemorating his 70th birthday was one of those that preceded the Festival which I hadn’t known about.)

November 5, 2009

The historic facade of the Teatro Amadeo Roldán, first opened in 1928, disguises a totally contemporary interior which was completely rebuilt decades after a fire in 1977.

The modern interior of the Teatro Amadeo Roldán was the site of another concert with three sections, each of which might have been a concert on its own. Yasuaki Shimizu and Saxophonettes, a quintet of tenor and baritone saxophones from Tokyo, offered playful interpretations of movements from J.S, Bach’s cello suites, alternating with Shimizu’s own compositions, improvisations, and folk arrangements. This was followed by a set of three works by Cubans. The standout of these was Carlos Fariña’s Estudio: Variables in Canon (1982), for four sets of four drums; it’s an intriguing contrapuntal piece featuring a motive of continual eighth-notes being passed around with breathless energy.

The final set was by another eminent visiting ensemble, Conjunto de Percusión de Barcelona. These three men were not only amazing instrumentalists; they also brought an excellent sense of theatre to their work. Serie C3 (by Carles Santos of Spain) was played on three sets of metal bowls; the trio evoked its minimalist patterns with a Zen-like solemnity and devotion. The Belgian Thierry de Mey’s Musique de table (1987) was really a work of choreography for the hands of the musicians on a wooden table top. Executed with grace and meticulous attention to detail, rhythmic sounds emerge but it is the dance-like motion and interplay of the hands that is riveting. (To get a better understanding of how Musique de table works, visit YouTube and look at one of the several performances of this post-modern classic.)

November 6, 2009

Back at the Basilica, the Argentinean pianist Dora de Marinis offered a huge and exhilarating set of music from Argentina. She began with a remarkable and completely compelling set of Five Tangos by Juan José Castro (1895-1968). Each title begins with an ellipsis (suggesting a continuation of something?) “… Evocation” moved from an opening rumble to a splashy colorful melody “…Llorón” had a restless energy, like a repeating question (“llorón” means “weeping”), a query rather than a cry. The work by Carmen de Juan (a pseudonym used by the music professor Mirtha Poblet de Merenda, b. 1934) was titled Pieza para armar y sonar, that is, “piece to assemble and play.” It was built of abstracted layers of rhythmic ostinatos moving at different speeds, like shifting tectonic plates. After a confrontational theme, the motion of the shifting plates becomes almost frenetic with alarming jabs from the bass region. Marinis concluded with several works by Ginastera, including the Piano Sonata no. 2, which with its torrents of pounding chords, was astonishingly violent and forceful. Luckily, the middle movement, Adagietto pianissimo, offered relief with its atmospheric beauty. This amazing performance felt like a whole program in itself, but there was more after that (no intermission).

Juan Piñera’s Trio Cervantino (for clarinet, violin and piano) again engaged themes of a musical past. The first of two sections was expansive and felt overly long to me. But the second part never lost momentum during its breathless, wild ride. The young musicians of Trio Concertante (Dianelys Castillo, clarinet; Leonardo Gell, piano; and Fernando Muñoz, violin) for whom Piñera wrote the work, gave it a rousing, committed and virtuostic performance. But what did the title mean? Was it a reference to iconic Cuban composer Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905) – OR a comment on the author of Don Quixote? The work was both epic and episodic in nature. Back home with access to Google (internet access in Cuba is both slow and expensive) I found an article that explained the reference. The pianist of the ensemble suggested to Piñera that Prelude No. 1 for piano by Ignacio Cervantes might be used as the basis of a Theme and Variations. Piñera took the Cervantes work as a starting point, but also pays homage to composers including Satie, J.S. Bach, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.

Following the concert, UNEAC, the Union of writers, artist and composers, sponsored a party on the patio of their beautiful colonial mansion. There was food and drinks, and the choir from Santiago de Cuba sang again. Then the famous Septeto de Habana (of the Buena Vista Social Club vintage and style), performed. Lots of people got up and danced, because in Cuba you have to have some dancing!

November 8, 2009

Pianist Leonardo Gell Fernández-Cueto with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba, conducted by Roberto Valera, during the final concert of the Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea de La Habana

The National Symphony of Cuba (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba, the leading but not only orchestra of the island) gave the concluding program of the Festival, performing four pieces by living Cuban composers. Roberto Valera’s Suite Caribeña (2004) was popular and accessible in flavor, and full of distinctly Cuban references and rhythms. Its six movements included “El baile de recuerdo” (the dance of memory), “Berceuse Caturliana” (a reference to Alejandro García Caturla, who helped establish a classical tradition with a distinct Cuban identity in the early 20th century), and “Danzon Raro.” Valera based it on his piano suite of 2002, and this orchestrated version featured the piano, performed by the distinguished Leonardo Gell. Occasionally the orchestra (which Valera conducted), lacked precision in the syncopations but the performance was spirited and lush in sonority nevertheless. At times jazzy, romantic, restless, or sweetly nostalgic, Suite Caribeña proved to be a completely engaging work. The other works on the program were also fine, but perhaps not as tightly crafted and focused in their intensity as some of the chamber works.

The Festival as a whole offered a variety of works, and for the most part, the Cuban music communicated freshly through recognizable vocabulary. Pieces were tonal but with imaginative twists; in several cases the final chords spun startled listeners into a new key. An emphasis on melody and direct emotion results in music that is attractive to a general listener; it doesn’t need the special pleading of “give new music a chance.” It was not a “new music festival” that you would hear anywhere else. That is why Americans need to be able to hear it! Guido López Gavilán’s work (to take just one example) reminded me at times of music by Holst, Rachmaninov, or Scriabin. I say this not to deride it, rather I say bravo that something new and fresh can be made out of familiar aspects of the language, something full of intensity, that can be uplifting through an emphasis on lyrical melody, structured phrases, and engaging rhythms.


After the festival was over I had the opportunity to sit in on Juan Piñera’s composition class at the Instituto Superiore de Arte, and two students gave intense performances of their own works for piano. Ernesto Oliva’s was a fantasy evoking vivid folkloric scenes from a rural village: markets and church bells and crowd scenes were conveyed with breathtaking virtuosity. Yulia Rodríguez’s was an abstract pianistic soliloquy—jazz infused, dark, passionate and introspective—her piece would be welcome on a concert stage or in a jazz café in New York City. Hearing these two remarkable works suggests that Cubans will continue to work within familiar musical language and the future will offer new and moving artistic insights drawn from that vocabulary.


Composer Magaly Ruiz Lastres (seated with her dog Mickey) and the author, Liane Curtis

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. She is President of The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc. and Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy. She would like to thank Laura Macy for her help in editing this article, and she also thanks the Cuban composers Magaly Ruiz Lastres and Sigried Macías Lastre who helped a great deal in obtaining information about the Festival (and who also had pieces performed on the Festival although Liane was not able to attend those performances).

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