Against many odds, the Mozart in Havana tour is visiting two Philadelphia-area venues (one Saturday, the other on Monday) to perform for a public still likely to consider Mozart and Havana a highly improbable combination.
"Our first [U.S.] concert was very emotional," said pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who discovered the Havana Lyceum Orchestra after playing at a piano festival in Cuba, then recorded the all-Mozart disc Mozart in Havana with the group for Sony Classical and organized the current tour. "There's something about this orchestra. The more I get to know them, the more I understand that they have a kind of aura that makes you want to do whatever you can for them."
Founded in 2009 under conductor Jose Antonio Mendez Padron, the 40-member orchestra mixes students and young professionals, is cosponsored by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation, and has visited Mozart's Austrian birthplace as well as locales in Germany. But the players are so strapped for money they're known to use telephone wire for strings.
Travel visas for this U.S. tour didn't arrive until a week before departure; young people without families are defection risks. On the U.S. side, the tour was organized in conjunction with the April release of Mozart in Havana — but so quickly that presenters had already committed money for their seasons. Even Philadelphia's Astral Artists, which was instrumental in launching Dinnerstein's career, couldn't book the group but nonetheless made a donation to the cause.
That seems to be the spirit of the tour, even with the current state of U.S.-Cuban relations cooling. With a shoestring budget, each concert costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to produce. Dinnerstein had her neighbors in Brooklyn host the musicians for free housing. Longwood Gardens, whose concert schedule isn't so crowded, stepped forward with a 7:30 p.m. Saturday date.
For the Barnes Foundation concert at 7 p.m. Monday, WHYY's Articulate! host Jim Cotter found a youth hostel to lodge the musicians and will webcast the concert from the show's Facebook page. He also found underwriting for $1,000 worth of strings. "I can't say no to Simone," he said.
Dinnerstein, 44, has a lot of goodwill in Philadelphia, which heard her early forays into Bach's Goldberg Variations thanks to Astral Artists, followed by a self-financed recording of the piece that eventually topped the classical sales charts.
However, the career that came with recognition wasn't always to her liking, especially concerto dates. "The whole experience can be really superficial, because you get very little rehearsal time," she said. "If I'm going to be away from my family, it has to be something I really care about."
She would have to care about the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, considering what was necessary just to make the recording. Besides needing special approval to bring in the recording equipment, 24-hour guards were necessary because the recording venue — a church — had little security. Sessions were held late at night, after a popular Cuban TV show was finished, so prevalent was urban noise.
Still, highly personal performances emerged, made all the more so because Dinnerstein had composer Philip Lasser rewrite cadenzas for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21.
"I've been doing a lot of interviews since the CD came out and wondered if I'm ramping it up too much," said Dinnerstein. "Then I went to Havana two weeks ago to rehearse … and thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is incredible.' "
Even in the summertime heat at New York's Naumburg Bandshell, where they played Tuesday? "The musicians in the orchestra are so in the moment. They just respond instantly to whatever happens," she said.
Especially to being in New York for the first time. "I've seen so much of this in the movies," said violinist Amelia Febles Diaz. "Being here is better. It's reality."