It was a moment few could have predicted back in 1959 (or even more recently than Cuba’s revolution) – 800 Americans standing in honor while a Cuban conductor led American musicians through the Cuban national anthem, both countries’ flags flanking the stage. But that’s exactly what happened Saturday night at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater, and Friday night in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, and yesterday at Pioneer Park Pavilion, Puyallup, with all three venues seeing packed, enthusiastic houses for a first-ever concert of Cubans playing side by side with Americans in this country. The orchestra was, of course, the Northwest Sinfonietta, whose January Cuba tour sparked off the whole exchange, and who played with most of their usual panache and skill in a program of Beethoven and Lecuona.
In Tacoma, the music came after an official proclamation of “Northwest Sinfonietta Day” by Mayor Marilyn Strickland, and a welcome. Strickland conducted her way through the U.S. national anthem without mishap, and then Cuban violist Jesús Carnero de la Teja took the baton for the Cuban anthem. After three dances by Ernesto Lecuona, the “Cuban Gershwin,” which showed both Lecuona’s flair for ineffable orchestration and a sultry, dramatic flair from the musicians, Carnero again took the podium from director Christophe Chagnard to lead “Danzon Ragon” by Cuban pianist Andrés Alen. Under Carnero’s deft leadership, which also included some suave dancing and inviting the audience to clap along, the bossa nova featured a strong percussion section and smooth brass solos. The Cuban string players also got to lead their respective sections, which was a nice gesture.
And then hot Havana humidity gave way to Germanic Sturm-und-Drang, as Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 began. A historic moment for the Cubans, who had never played it before due to lack of resources in their hometown Cienfuegos, the piece began without quite enough mystery, the pianissimos a bit loud and Chagnard’s forward tempo not quite picked up by the ensemble. Another bass and cello might have helped as well. Yet the phrasing was organic and flowing, and the second movement was more united, with clear-toned solos by bassoon and oboe, and fierce timpani work by Matt Drumm. Taking a slowish tempo Chagnard made the goblin-like scherzo more urbane than menacing, but his interpretation of the slow third movement was dreamily tender in pace, with an eye to the large phrasing between the beautiful melodies and their variations. A faultless first violin section, supersolid brass fanfares, soaring comments by clarinet and an almost hypnotic underbeat in cello/bass transformed this movement into something truly magical.
By the fourth, famous movement, Chagnard held the commitment of every single body onstage, whether orchestra, chorus or soloist. After a cello/bass recitative that was strong and lyrical, if not perfect, Choral Union proved itself a full-bodied and responsive choir, well-balanced and right on the button. The soloist quartet made a perfect match: Jennifer Bromagen’s sweet soprano, Sarah Mattox strong on the alto line, Stephen Rumph’s silvery tenor rising above glittering strings and Clayton Brainerd, though less powerful than usual, vibrating the entire theater with an admonishing bass. Except for a messy fugue, Chagnard moved skillfully between tempi and sections, telling Beethoven’s story of storm and redemption, and Cubans and Americans alike metaphorically raised the Rialto’s rafters with musical joy.
The Orquesta de Cámara Concierto Sur from Cienfuegos, Cuba, will give masterclasses this week at the University of Puget Sound, followed by free concerts 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at Schneebeck Hall, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma, and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13 in Carwein Auditorium, Keystone Building, University of Washington Tacoma, 1900 Commerce St., Tacoma. Information: 253-879-3555, pugetsound.edu/cubanfestival or 253-692-5753, tacoma.uw.edu.calendar
The Northwest Sinfonietta will play its next concert Nov. 9-11 in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup. 888-356-6040, nwsinfonietta.org