Heart strings

Autumn 2004

British musician Walter Reiter went to Cuba in February to conduct a Cuban orchestra, his account of his experience is as touching as it is revealing

“Cuban music?” said my friend. “Sure, there’s Salsa, Rumba.. Oh, you mean classical? Well, err.. . Baroque? There is baroque music from Cuba?”

Well, Cuban baroque music does exist, and is, I am glad to report, alive and well.

Music, perhaps the most effective spiritual weapon the Counter-Reformation employed, found fertile ground in Cuba, and the liturgical music of Spanish and Cuban composers could be heard echoing through the cathedrals of Santiago and Havana from the mid-16th century. The most important composer was Esteban Salas (1725-1803), who wrote prolifically for the cathedral of Santiago de Cuba.

Salas also formed an orchestra capable of performing the symphonies of Haydn, thus enabling Cuba to enjoy a rich musical culture that mirrored, possibly outshone, that of the motherland.

It was mainly to perform and record the works of Salas that Cuba’s extraordinary Early Music group ‘Ars Longa’ was formed a few years ago. One might not expect State Sponsorship of Early Music to be be an especially high priority, but as a group devoted to the revival of the national heritage, Ars Longa was given a church in Havana in which to rehearse, as well as help in buying its first ‘period’ instruments.

With the very professional musicological expertise of Miriam Escudero, and with help from abroad, beautiful editions of Salas’ music were prepared and published, and the first concerts were given in Havana under the skilful guidance of Ars Longa’s founder Teresa Paz. Herself a soprano, Paz had gathered around her talented singers who were conservatory trained, and then found a handful of musicians who wanted to join in the experiment: two baroque violins and two viola da gambas were imported, paid for by the State, and somehow these talented people learned how to play. A guitarist was given a theorbo (a large lute) and he too taught himself.

My wife Linda and I met Ars Longa at a festival in Slovenia two summers ago. They had just flown in from Havana and had been travelling for about 24 hours, but they were all smiles and warmth, hugging everyone in sight and joking incessantly. They looked very striking, being everything from totally black to totally white, (how many black or Asian classical musicians do we have in the UK?) and it wasn’t long before I had agreed to give the two violinists a lesson and Linda, a soprano, had agreed to help the singers.

These musicians were a revelation! Somehow, without ‘knowing’ very much, they managed to make the music sound ‘right’ anyway, and when they asked us both if we would like to come to Cuba to teach them more, we delightedly said yes,

The Festival of Early Music ‘Estaban Salas’ took place in Havana in February, and we were both invited to participate. There was to be no fee, but The British Council in Havana was very keen to help, and had generously offered to pay our expenses. Linda was to give a recital with Ars Longa, in which the ‘newly’ discovered Handel Gloria was to have its Caribbean premier, and she was then to give master classes.

But exactly what kind of project did I want to do? Rashly I decided to get to Cuba, gather as many interested musicians together as possible and create, in one week, a full-blown baroque orchestra! Nothing less! The programme too was ambitious: I wasn’t especially worried about the standard of the concert, this was to be an experiment, a learning experience, a pioneering venture. I selected music by Purcell, Biber, Muffat, Bach and Vivaldi.

The next task was to find enough gut strings for a whole orchestra. I wrote off to an American string maker: could he help? It meant breaking the official government embargo, so he’d have to send them via me. His reply was unequivocal: “I would be happy to contribute some strings to Ars Longa. If it weren’t for this grinning pestilence of an administration I would go to Havana myself.” Encouraged by this response, I decided to make various appeals for help to friends, pupils and colleagues in the Early Music world, asking them to contribute all manner of things which I was beginning to realise were impossible to obtain in Cuba. As a result, CDs began pouring in, together with scores, strings, rosin, tuning forks and various bits and pieces for transforming ‘modern’ violins into fake ‘baroque’ ones. I was especially thrilled when the Lute Society responded to my appeal with “Go ahead and buy a set of strings, and send the bill to us... do give our fraternal greetings to the lute players of Cuba.”

I flew to Havana in mid-February. Linda had already sung her recital and had been besieged by singers asking for lessons. She had given a Master Class for the “Institute for Higher Arts”, after which she was presented with an honorary ‘Diploma of Recognition for Artistic Contribution’, had held a workshop with an all-male choir, had spent many long hours teaching individual students, had been guest of honour at the Havana Opera where she ended up coaching one of the leading ladies and, last but not least, she had taught Ernesto, the wonderful old pianist in the bar of one of the hotels to play “Bridge over Troubled Waters”!

I was met at Havana airport by Linda and Teresa with the news that it was not yet at all certain how many violins or violas there would be, that there was no cello but only a gamba, and that the harpsichordist, who was actually a pianist, had double-booked himself and might not be able to play at all. Chanting the old conductor’s mantra “never commit suicide after just one rehearsal” I went along to the church at ten the next morning.

As people started turning up and embracing me warmly, even the ones, men and women alike, whom I didn’t know, (not too many directors get that treatment!) I began to realise just how much our coming was to mean to these people. Throughout the week I was impressed with the way they were able to show their gratitude to me and accept me into their circle without sacrificing any of their pride or dignity. Thus they received the gifts I brought, the bow I gave them, the dozens of CDs and the packets of strings and other donations which I showered on them, with a simple sophistication which helped to make giving so much easier for me, and encouraged me to give of myself with added enthusiasm. They made me feel one of them, a sense of solidarity encapsulated in the word ‘companero’, which means friend or comrade. It was a feeling of working for a common cause, without personal gain, on an equal footing with all one’s colleagues, Coming from our society where one is constantly under pressure to assert oneself by displaying what one owns and yet is too often afraid to communicate who one really is, the relegation of materialism has always struck a chord deep within me. Eating with my Cubans at lunchtime, a meal of beans and chick peas with a wafer biscuit served on a tin plate, put me back in touch again with some basic part of me.

For five hot and humid days we slogged away, eight hours every single day, rehearsing until we were ready to collapse. We took the programme to bits, phrase by phrase, note by note, instrument by instrument, and then we put it all together again. The group’s enthusiasm never wavered, nor did they ever flinch at the prospect of trying things that were utterly new to them, and their joy at making music never waned.

Not once did anyone show signs of impatience, never once did anyone lose their good humour, nor appear to be cracking under the pressure of it all. They were astonishingly quick to learn, so that their progress was audible from one minute to the next, and once learned was never forgotten.

They put up with my demands regarding styles with which they were far from familiar, the exercises and the baroque ‘gestures’ we practised together, my insistence on perfect ensemble, my jokes and my bad Spanish, and still someone would always ask for a lesson, (just a short lesson, please?) at the end of even such an exhausting day.

The concert took place on the sixth day in the church of San Francisco (built by slaves imported from Africa by the British..). It was a festive occasion and the group performed with flair, conviction and plenty of smiles. The audience could have been forgiven for thinking that this orchestra had existed for much longer than just a few days.

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