When President Obama announced his plan to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, allowing for more Americans to travel to the island, he opened the door to give Jeffrey Jacob a unique opportunity: to play with the Cuban National Symphony and record an original piece for piano and orchestra titled “Awakening.” Jacob, a professor emeritus of music at Saint Mary’s, was selected from 300 submissions to travel to Cuba for a week in April.
Jacob said his interest in music stems from his parents, both of whom played the piano. He began piano lessons at five years old and went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from the University of Cincinnati, a master’s degree from the Julliard School and a doctorate degree from Johns Hopkins University.
Jacob said a U.S.-based recording company, PARMA Recordings, negotiated with the Cuban government to allow American composers and musicians to come to Cuba.
“[PARMA] issued a call for scores,” he said. “I thought, ‘There’s no chance,’ but I had the score, and I was going to just send it out to orchestras to see if anyone would be interested.”
Americans have not been able to travel to Cuba freely since the early 1960s, so the call for scores posed an unique opportunity for American composers, Jacob said.
“At a very preliminary stage, I thought, ‘If this is selected, I’ll be piano soloist and composer with the Cuban National Symphony, and that will mean that I’m the first North American pianist in 50 years to perform and record my music with the Cuban National Symphony,’” he said.
Jacob said the process for choosing the pieces began with PARMA, which sent selected pieces to Cuba for the musicians to choose from.
“Nobody was more surprised,” Jacob said. “Nobody was more surprised than I was when I got the word. It was an email followed immediately by a phone call. My very first thought — and I didn’t say this to anyone — was, ‘This must be some sort of scam.’”
But it was not a scam, and on April 16, Jacob flew to Cuba. He said he had played a festival for contemporary music in Cuba 29 years ago, but his experience this time around was widely different.
Because Fidel Castro opened hotels targeted toward European tourists and relaxed laws about free enterprise, the Cuban economy has improved the standard of living for Cubans and has helped the country become more prosperous, though the Cuban people still largely struggle with poverty, Jacob said.
“Things have changed enormously,” he said.
Although Cuba and America did not have diplomatic relations for decades, Jacob said Cuban people are largely interested in having a relationship with Americans.
“They want full access to the U.S.,” he said. “They want to be able to travel here; Cuban businesses desperately want U.S. tourist dollars and in general … there are millions of Cuban immigrants and their families in Miami and Florida and elsewhere in the U.S., so they were just delighted at this possibility of the opening of relations. They hope that it will some day lead to full diplomatic relations where there is freedom for travel and freedom for businesses.”
Being in Cuba with music at the center of the trip helped unite the two cultures, Jacob said.
“For Cuban musicians, music is really important,” he said. “They were delighted with the opportunity to be exposed to what’s going on. With the embargo, they had no idea what’s going on in the U.S. in terms of contemporary classical music. They were very open to everything.”
Jacob, who speaks conversational Spanish, said he was able to talk with the musicians during their time together.
“They were very curious about the U.S. and the things being written,” he said. “They were really eager for more exchanges like this.”
He was impressed with the musicians’ work ethic and passion, he said.
“At the first rehearsal, they had practiced the heck out of the piece,” he said. “They were extremely well prepared.”
Jacob said the musicians went through the piece three times, after which he thought they were done, but the musicians insisted on running through it multiple times all day.
“They were committed to getting every detail exactly right, every note, every nuance, every phrase,” he said. “That was the highlight.”
Nicole Caratas, The Observer
August 26, 2016