A Steinway From New York Meets Virtuosos in Havana
By HANNAH BERKELEY COHENOCT. 10, 2015
HAVANA — As the glistening, plastic-wrapped Steinway made its way from the rickety truck onto the uneven cobblestone square of Cathedral Plaza, cameras flashed, as if the instrument itself were a celebrity. The piano had traveled from Astoria, Queens, for the type of concert Cuba had not seen in more than five decades. On Friday, about 3,000 Cubans and foreigners sat in plastic chairs on the plaza, their eyes darting between international virtuosos almost within arm’s reach. On the left side of the makeshift wobbly stage, Lang Lang, China’s fresh-faced piano prodigy, stroked the keys meticulously as Chucho Valdés, one of Cuba’s music superstars, struck heavier tones on a second piano positioned to the right. At center stage, standing before the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra with her baton raised high, Marin Alsop, the American conductor, unified the ensemble.
The free concert featured works by Tchaikovsky; Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture”; “Victory Stride,” by the American jazz pianist James P. Johnson; and pieces by Mr. Valdés and two other Cuban composers, Ernesto Lecuona and Antonio María Romeu.
On the day last December that President Obama and Raúl Castro, the Cuban president, announced that they would restore full relations between the United States and Cuba, Eric Latzky and Jean-Jacques Cesbron, the concert’s producers, were already deep into a discussion about how best to create a cultural collaboration. With almost four decades of combined experience in producing, Mr. Latzky and Mr. Cesbron were determined to see their idea to fruition. “This project began out of a labor of love, building bridges outside of history and politics,” Mr. Latzky said in an interview.
After meeting Mr. Valdés in Vienna in 2012, Mr. Lang took interest in Latin jazz, a musical idiom quite different from the classical one he had mastered. “Cuba is so eager to have musicians from around the world come perform here,” Mr. Lang said. Mr. Cesbron’s music production company, which represents Mr. Lang, and Mr. Latzky’s culture communications group formed a partnership.
Mr. Cesbron said that he and Mr. Lang both liked challenges, and decided that Cuba was the place for the venture. “And what better artist than Valdés?” Mr. Cesbron said in an interview.
The Cuban music industry embraced the project. “We welcome exchanges, especially ones that contribute to the breaking down of the isolation our country has felt for so long,” said Orlando Vistel Columbié, president of the Cuban Institute of Music. “There’s not a political motive to this international exchange of love of music between two countries, but I do think it contributes to creating an environment conducive to the possibility of constructing grander projects which generate openness.”
Steinway is donating the $150,000 piano, the first new American piano imported since the Cuban Revolution, to the Cuban Institute of Music. “I hope this encourages a new generation of Lang Langs and Chuchos,” Mr. Lang said.
As the concert ended on a high note, Mr. Valdés began to grin, and he and Mr. Lang exhaled almost in unison. The audience exploded into a standing ovation, and Ms. Alsop put away her baton and took out a selfie stick, capturing three beaming artists from three different countries.
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