It was a night in Havana Friday at Proctors with the debut of the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. It was also a night of surprises.
After music director Enrique Pérez Mesa led the orchestra in the “Star Spangled Banner,” it launched into the Cuban national anthem and then, with the very large crowd cheering and laughing, they performed Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.”
The busy score is one of the trickiest with complex rhythms, lots of fast technical passages, and plenty of color from the many percussion instruments. It’s Gershwin at his most exotic. The orchestra had all the right senses of rhythm and sway, but it didn’t sound completely comfortable with the technical aspects. Mesa was solid, precise, and single-handedly drove the players forward with much vigor and strong cues.
They took a back seat, however, in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with pianist Nachito Herrera and conductor Guido López-Gavilãn. In an interpretation completely idiomatic and idiosyncratic based on Herrera’s strong Cuban jazz background, it probably was like nothing the crowd had heard before.
Herrera’s manner is to attack the keyboard with a big sound, great energy, and to improvise where possible. Double rhythms became triplets, tremolos and glissandos emphasized certain phrases; the piece’s famous melodies were often filigreed. And the orchestra members were asked to click their fingers. Herrera was as stylish as his natty spats.
Despite the strong jazz tilt, it was a dynamic performance and the crowd went wild with a roar of approval, applause and a standing ovation. The musicians obliged with “Guaguancó,” a kind of rumba, written by the conductor with Herrera still in the spotlight. Hot trumpets, the first violins standing and doing small dance steps while playing and Herrera pounding away in octave runs brought another huge response that left the crowd bubbling at intermission.
Unexpectedly, Mayor Gary McCarthy appeared with the conductors and Herrera to read a proclamation making Oct. 26 National Symphony of Cuba Day. Herrera told the crowd they only had to make the request and the orchestra would return every Oct. 26. More cheers.
A woman pianist, possibly the orchestra’s Vilma Garriga Comas, played the beautifully melancholic and evocative “La Camparsa” by Ernesto Lecuona, which had a light orchestral accompaniment.
To show everyone that the orchestra can also play the staple repertoire, Mesa conducted a vigorous and straightforward performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. It showed that the orchestra can play very well, even if it lacks a bit of refinement. Very soft passages and cello/bass tuttis were especially clean and tight and the orchestra’s sound is mellow. Tempos were quick and the rousing finale got the audience on its feet again.