From Mozart to El Manisero

The Havana Lyceum Orchestra is proof of classical music’s importance in Cuba.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein grew up well aware of Cuba's legacy of musical excellence. Her long time teacher at the Manhattan School of Music, Solomon Mikowsky, was born there. So in 2015, when he invited Dinnerstein to Havana to perform at his piano festival, she accepted, despite not being quite sure what to expect from her partners, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra.

Simone Dinnerstein: I keep using the word burnished, but there's something about their sound that's, like, golden, honey-colored. There's some kind of sheen to their sound that is unified and blended together. And their articulation is so precise, too—like, they're really, really together.

Since forming in 2009, the orchestra has recruited the best students, recent graduates, and professors from the island's top music training programs. And the bond between the musicians is profound.

Amelia Febles Diaz (violinist): We are not coworkers. We are friends. We know each other from school. I've been together with some girls from when I was seven years old. So there's good communication, good dynamic. I think the lack of this communication by cell phone, by internet, makes us different—not just from America, but from the whole world. We connect more, maybe, with people. We still talk. We still share more verbal experience, and it's good for me, still.

Jenny Peña Campo (violinist): I think that it's a treasure what us Cubans have, right? We have a lot of enthusiasm. It makes us more uninhibited when we play. We always enjoy the music much more. I think that makes us one of the best orchestras in Cuba today, not just in Havana.

In 2016, Dinnerstein entered the group's inner circle when she returned to Havana to collaborate with them on a new CD of Mozart conciertos.

Dinnerstein: What's really nice is that they include me in this. I've become a friend to them, too, and they listen to me just as much as they listen to each other. And, as a soloist, I often am playing with orchestras, and walking into a situation where I'm playing with a whole group of people that normally play together, and I'm the foreigner, nd they're not all welcoming. Some of them are, and some of them are a little bit stiff to begin with. These people in this orchestra were immediately accepting and warm with me.

All that good feeling proved useful when it came time to bring the orchestra to the US for a tour supporting the album, a massive logistical feat spearheaded by Dinnerstein.

Dinnerstein: Going to meet them at J.F.K., I was so happy to see them, and they all were happy to see me. It was really lovely. And there was one girl who didn't seem happy. She seemed upset. And so I asked her what was wrong, and she said that her father was supposed to meet her, and he wasn't there. And I watched from a distance as she embraced this man, her father. And it was incredibly touching and emotional. I was standing there next to the conductor, and he said to me, "She's not seen her father in 15 years." So, then they finally came back to the bus, and he couldn't even speak. And I just thought, "Well, right there is a reason for this tour." That's enough, that they were reunited.

But that wasn't all. The project struck a genuine chord with its listeners.

Dinnerstein: People said to me afterwards, "I can't believe how well they play, despite everything." It's very difficult for them to get strings. It's too expensive. I actually never realized how expensive strings are. They are ridiculously expensive. So they were tuning their instruments quite flat, like, crazily flat, and some of them couldn't even afford E strings and were using telephone wire instead. Jenny tells a story about how her fingers would bleed, because she was using telephone wire. And then, even the brass players and the woodwinds, they all have challenges.

Despite the difficulties they face, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra creates music that is undeniably beautiful and powerful. The encore to their concerts with Dinnerstein was a mashup of influences that perfectly embodied their collaboration.

Dinnerstein: So originally, I asked Jenny Peña, the principal second violinist, who's also a great composer and arranger, if she would be willing to arrange a Cuban song for piano and orchestra as an encore. And she chose "Manisero." I didn't know that piece. It's interesting, because that was the first Cuban piece to become a major hit in the United States. That's what kind of brought Cuban popular music here. So she wrote a wonderful arrangement, but it started with this very long piano cadenza. So I asked her if she'd mind if I changed that opening. And I found a way of inserting a Mozart piano sonata that was in the same key as the arrangement. I thought it would be kind of cool to start with Mozart and then morph into "Manisero," almost as if Mozart was dreaming of Havana. And she said that was okay. So that's what we did. nd I thought that that was really a nice bridge, from the Mozart to Cuba.

Dinnerstein: In the "Manisero," they all start moving a certain way. I couldn't do what they were doing. I didn't feel it that way. I felt it a different way, but it was really fun to just let go.