Sommerfest opens with ‘Celebrate Cuba’

Roderick Cox, the Minnesota Orchestra's new assistant conductor. (Courtesy photo)

Roderick Cox, the Minnesota Orchestra’s new assistant conductor. (Courtesy photo)

The Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest, now in its 35th year, arrived Sunday with a celebration of one of the most historically significant events in the orchestra’s history: May’s blockade-vaulting trip to Cuba.

The single concert, titled “Celebrate Cuba!” began the annual four-week Sommerfest series that includes 11 different programs appealing to varying tastes.

For instances, there’s a chamber-music program featuring Sommerfest artistic director Andrew Litton doubling as pianist in Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet.

But there’s also a screening of the MGM musical “Singin’ in the Rain” with live orchestra.

And there’s an appearance by the Temptations doing their standards, such as “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

Of course, there will be several performances dedicated to Strauss waltzes before the series ends with a staged performance of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” on Aug. 1

Sunday’s Cuban celebration had all the markings of a love fest.

With violist Michael Adams as host, the program focused on obviously cherished memories of the four days spent performing, rehearsing with students and reconnecting with people from a country that has been estranged from the United States for more than 60 years.

The musical elements were short, focusing in particular on Latin music that the orchestra either performed as encores during its all-Beethoven concerts in Cuba, or works that were rehearsed with Cuban students.

Bookended by Gershwin’s short “Cuban Overture” and Bernstein’s Mamba from “West Side Story,” it was a program of works no longer than 10 or 11 minutes each.

These were led by Roderick Cox, the orchestra’s new assistant conductor. Tall and lean, he is an energetic, dramatic figure on the podium.

In general, the works were loud, rhythmic, festive and irresistible.

But the focus of the celebration was clearly on a visiting Cuban choral group: The 16-member a cappella choir, Coro Entrevoces.

This small group is led by Digna Guerra, who was in charge of the massed choir in Cuba that performed Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the orchestra in May.

Her smaller group, now on a U.S. tour, is wonderfully blended and exactingly articulate and it “plays to the audience.”

Their short numbers were announced by Adams from the stage, though he quipped that many of the pieces were “too difficult to mispronounce.”

However, some of the American songs were familiar, including arrangements of jazz pianist Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debby” and the Stephen Foster song, “Nelly Bly.”

And they rocked the familiar “Guantanamera,” bringing the house down.

By David Hawley, Special to the Pioneer Press
July 5, 2015


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