HRO's Cuban Summer

“It might be easier than touring Afghanistan, but it is definitely more difficult than touring in most parts of the world,” said Federico Cortese, music director of the Harvard -Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO), when asked about the logistics of planning a performance tour to Cuba. Every few years the HRO goes on an international summer tour. This year they will depart for a one-week visit to Cuba immediately after commencement.

Cuba seems a particularly significant tour destination this year—it is the country of choice not only for the HRO, but also for the New York Philharmonic. As a student orchestra, the HRO stresses the distinctly collaborative nature of its performance tour. “[The New York Philharmonic’s] purpose is different from ours. We’re working more with students, we’re an educational institution. But seeing that we both got our licenses approved, obviously the government saw merit in both our projects. It seems that they’re much more focused on music and cultural communications, and we’re more focused on students,” said Bran S. Shim ’14, one of HRO’s publicity managers.

With this objective in mind, HRO members are traveling not only as musicians, but as representatives of Harvard University. “Although [the tour] is not an official trip of Harvard University, [we] are choosing to go to Cuba and perform and collaborate. I think it’s a very strong statement because Harvard carries an enormous aura and weight. I do think Cubans will pay attention to that,” said Cortese. In addition, the orchestra wished to have a culturally significant visit. “When the administration was deciding where we were going to go on tour, one thing we had in common for our ideas is that we wanted it to be a culturally and musically significant experience ... it becomes a tour not for the sake of vacation,” said Y. Diana Tsen ’11, head of the Tour Committee and President Emeritus.

A performance tour to Cuba was not an easy one to plan, both logistically and musically. “I guess you can say we picked one of the more challenging places to go on tour,” said Tsen. Because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba, the orchestra had to receive approval from the U.S. Department of the Treasury in order to travel. “Until we received the license from the government, we legally were not allowed to make arrangements on the ground,” said Tsen.

Cortese’s challenge as music director was to select the tour’s repertoire. The orchestra will play two different programs on the week-long tour. The first program will include Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, the “New World Symphony,” and—tentatively—Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the HRO’s 2010 James Yannatos Concerto Competition Winner, pianist Y. Damon Meng ’13. “Dvorak’s New World Symphony is a perfect piece for an American symphony to play abroad because of the special place it holds in American history,” Cortese said.

The second program will consist solely of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a monumental work that requires both an orchestra and a choir. Because the symphony requires a large orchestra and chorus, the HRO hopes to collaborate with local Cuban singers. “Beethoven’s Ninth—although not necessarily what Beethoven wanted or meant—has become a beacon of freedom and hope for mankind, of peace. It has always played a very substantial role in music repertoire ... [it was] not by accident that it was [performed] in ’89 when the Berlin Wall fell,” said Cortese.

Invigorated by these developing plans, the HRO has organized a fundraising concert for their international tour on Friday, March 4 at Sanders Theatre. The performance will feature Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” as well as Tchaikovsy’s “Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture” and his Piano Concerto No. 1 with Meng. Under the baton of Cortese, HRO’s musicians hope to take Havana by storm.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.


The Feb. 28 article "HRO's Cuban Summer" misquoted Y. Diana Tsen '11 as saying that the trip to Cuba would both a tour and a vacation when, in fact, she said that the tour would be "not for the sake of vacation."