They played with Cuba’s national youth orchestra. They busked on the street. They sat in class with other young musicians. And they attended a multi-faceted performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Havana’s main theater for performing arts.
The Cayman Arts Festival Elite Strings, a group of young musicians from primary to high school age, enjoyed a wide spectrum of musical experiences during a recent five-day trip to Cuba. They even got in a bit of sightseeing and a brief immersion into the Cuban culture. It was the first such trip the programme has taken.
“We did everything we set out to do,” said Frances McConvey, head of music at John Gray High School.
And some things they did not expect.
“We had to be a bit fluid while we were there,” she said.
When a planned visit to the arts conservatory in Matanzas did not pan out because the school was being inspected on that particular day, McConvey decided her students would play anyway. They set up in the city’s Parque de Libertad and played for the public.
“That was completely unexpected,” said McConvey. Although they had seen plenty of street performers by that time, “We had no idea whether the police were going to move us on.”
Not only were they allowed to continue, but they drew the attention of some members of the local orchestra, which had just finished rehearsals. A few of the musicians came and sat in with the Cayman players.
Unlike other buskers, she said, they did not put out a hat for tips.
The common language of music bridged the language barrier throughout the trip, McConvey said. She recalled one particular interaction between her son, Dequan Smith, a cellist, and a cellist with the Amadeo Conservatoire String Ensemble. The two groups performed together on pieces such as Bach’s Double Violin Concerto.
During a break, McConvey said, “Dequan was sitting with his partner. They’d obviously found a common denominator and they were playing together.”
She said the ensemble’s director invited Dequan, who has recently garnered some attention as a cellist, to return in June to perform as a soloist with the group. McConvey is also hoping to bring the ensemble’s lead violinist to Cayman in the near future to perform in a Cayman Arts Festival performance.
She hopes such cooperative ventures will be ongoing.
“We’ll definitely go again,” she said of the excursion to the neighbouring island. “We have contacts who we see as friends now. They were impressed with what we can do, so we can do more things together.”
The trip, she said, was coordinated by Gianeya Sanchez, who teaches music in Cayman primary schools. Sanchez is Cuban.
“We couldn’t really have done it if we didn’t have her,” McConvey said.
In addition to their experience with the string ensemble and performing on the street, the group visited the school where Cuba’s National Youth Orchestra is based, sitting in on some classes and playing with the group. On their final evening, they attended the Requiem performance at the Gran Teatro de la Habana, which featured a full orchestra, choir, soloists and dancers.
McConvey said the performance was on par with what one might see at a major venue in Berlin.
“It was totally amazing,” she said. “The standard was really high.”
The students, she said, were musically inspired, but they also gained important exposure to another culture.
John Gray student Kyla David, 13, a cellist, said the trip was a good bonding experience for her and her classmates. And she learned as a musician.
“We did a workshop and you learn different techniques,” she said. “I’m practising more on tight bow [now]. It’s important for a piece I have to play for my Grade 5 exams.”
She said she enjoyed seeing the older buildings and cars that Havana is well known for, and spending time in the markets.
“People were offering us [cigars] but we said no,” she said.
Instead she bought an ankle bracelet.
Thian Bodden, 11, of Red Bay Primary, said he plans to spend more time with his violin after seeing how well the Cuban students played.
“How advanced they were, it was incredible,” he said. “You could see they practise long and hard every day. It inspired me to practise more so I could get closer to how good they were.”
McConvey said she’s happy with the connections that were established on this initial venture, particularly those between the students of both countries.
“I think what made an impact on them was the kids playing with them,” she said of her students. “I think they realised that music is an international language.”