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U.S. orchestra makes historic trip to Cuba

By JOHN FLEMING Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 1999


In January, when President Clinton eased travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was ready.

"We were the first ones in the starting block," said Andreas Delfs, the Milwaukee music director, who will lead a program of Liszt, Strauss and Bernstein Friday at 888-seat Teatro Amadeo Roldan in Havana. It will be the first concert in Cuba by a major American orchestra in 37 years.

The symphony already had a concert booked at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, performed Wednesday night, which meant that going on to Cuba would be logistically and financially feasible if the U.S. trade embargo was loosened.

The orchestra will fly to Havana this morning and have a rehearsal tonight. Friday morning, it will give a free concert for young people. Friday night's concert will feature pianist Eduardus Halim in Liszt's E-flat Concerto. The publicity value of the trip is high on Delfs' agenda.

"There is media interest, which for an orchestra this size is not unimportant," he said.

National Public Radio plans a taped broadcast of the concert during a Christmas in Cuba special on Dec. 25.

Idealism played a part, too, in the brief tour, which will cost about $150,000.

"We have the chance to practice what we preach, which is saying that music is the one universal language in the world," Delfs said.

Orchestra officials stayed in contact with the State Department this week during the flap about whether 6-year-old rafter Elian Gonzalez should be returned to Cuba.

"There were anti-American demonstrations in the street in Cuba, and you think twice whether it's safe or worthy or important to go," Delfs said. "If somebody in the government would have said, "Well, we're not so sure,' we would have called it off; but there was nothing like that."

Delfs, 40, said there has been no political fallout from the trip in Milwaukee, which does not have a significant Cuban-American community. But Ninoska Perez, spokeswoman for the Cuban-American National Foundation, representing strong anti-Fidel Castro sentiment, told the Miami Herald that the symphony's visit was tantamount to the 1938 visit of Sir Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic to Nazi Germany.

Delfs stressed the people-to-people aspect of the visit.

"It was important to me that nobody could even think we're going down there to play for the government or to play for Fidel. We play for the Cuban people."

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