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Complex preparations made MN Orchestra's Cuba trip possible

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Sachiya Isomura packs his cello
Sachiya Isomura, who has played cello with the Minnesota Orchestra for 36 years, packed his instrument Monday at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis as the orchestra prepared to leave for Cuba.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

After a whirlwind of preparations, the Minnesota Orchestra leaves today for Cuba, where the musicians will perform two historic concerts.

When the musicians take the stage of Cuba's Teatro Nacional, the shows, broadcast live in Cuba, will mark the first time a North American orchestra has performed on the island in 15 years.

The appearance also will represent a significant achievement for the orchestra, which skillfully negotiated a variety of thorny issues still lingering from the 50-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba to quickly put the four-day tour together.

Moving the 120-member orchestra and a few dozen others — along with violins, kettle drums and other instruments — to a country that has limited diplomatic relations with the United States is a monumental task. Perhaps equally difficult is transporting the entire group to rehearsals, school visits and two concerts.

Orchestra librarian Paul Gunther with music
Minnesota Orchestra librarian Paul Gunther double-checked Monday that the musicians' music was in order before their trip to Cuba.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

From chartering a plane to the design of the Cuba tour hats members of the group will wear, the trip involved intense planning.

"This is not just a concert tour, this is a cultural interaction," Minnesota Orchestra President Kevin Smith said during a recent orientation meeting.

Beth Kellar-Long
Minnesota Orchestra general manager Beth Kellar-Long.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

For weeks, Beth Kellar-Long, the orchestra's general manager, has carried a huge three-ring binder, several inches thick, filled with tour details. 

A tour like the one the orchestra is making to Cuba typically takes years to organize, but Kellar-Long said it's a tribute to everyone that they've been able to do it in just months.  

"I love solving puzzles like this, so I was thrilled," she said.

The first challenge was obtaining an invitation to the island's annual Cubadisco festival from the Cuban authorities.

That's where Classical Movements came in. The Alexandria, Va.-based company has long arranged tours for the Minnesota Orchestra. It also has deep connections with Cuba.

Wooden cases to protect musicians' instruments
Stage managers pack the Minnesota Orchestra musicians' instruments in large wooden cases like this when the musicians travel or go on tour.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

The orchestra needed those connections, because in Cuba, it couldn't simply arrive and rent a hall, said Neeta Helms, president of Classical Movements. There are regulations to satisfy.

"You have to know the right people and you have to know the right steps and the order in which to ask for permission," she said.

After President Barack Obama announced in December that the United States would change its policy toward Cuba — and relax restrictions on travel to the island — several major U.S. orchestras vied to be the first to tour the island.

The Minnesota Orchestra received the first invitation because the organization was willing to travel quickly, said Helms, who traveled to the island to make the arrangements. But she said something about the orchestra's story also appealed to the Cubans.

"They particularly loved the fact that the Minnesota Orchestra has visited in 1929 and 1930," she said. "And they felt that this wasn't one more orchestra jumping on the bandwagon now." 

Rehearsing for jazz collaboration
Minnesota Orchestra musicians Peter Kogan (left), David Williamson and Charles Lazarus rehearsed Monday for a planned jazz collaboration with Cuban musicians.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

While Helms and her team worked on the legal side of things, they also had to weigh the logistics of moving an orchestral army, including some instruments that are so fragile and valuable they get seats to themselves. 

"The first thing for us was to find an airplane that could take all the people as well as all the instruments," Helms said.

Because of the size of double basses and harps, the orchestra needed a special plane. Helms said planners looked as far away as South Africa, where a plane that had been used to transport giraffes emerged as a possibility. But eventually they found a suitable wide-bodied jet in the Delta Air Lines fleet that could handle the load.

Another major challenge was finding accommodations for the tour group.

Orientation session at Orchestra Hall
Members of the 165-strong group traveling to Cuba with the Minnesota Orchestra gathered for an orientation session on April 28, 2015 at Orchestra Hall. Among the speakers was Dr. John Hallberg, who is traveling as the tour physician.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Sometimes you can't get one room in Havana, such is the demand," Helms said. "So for us to find 160 rooms over the right dates was a miracle." 

There also are meals to arrange, buses to move people around and contacts to make with local music academies for two educational events. All the arrangements are complicated by the fact that, under federal law, U.S banks aren't allowed to operate in Cuba. As a result, the orchestra must make all of the tour transactions in cash on the island.

The orchestra also is preparing to make temporary modifications to the performance hall, as the Teatro Nacional is a theater with sound-swallowing empty space backstage.

Smith said that forced the orchestra to ship an acoustical shell which will help project the music into the hall — "one that can break down into small enough pieces it can fit into the cargo hold because apparently there are no acoustic shells available in Havana." That required an even a bigger plane from Delta.

Commemorative tour caps
Commemorative tour caps rested on instrument cases during an orientation meeting on April 28, 2015 at Orchestra Hall.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The orchestra's tour will have some long-term benefits for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Until now, federal regulations barred direct flights from the airport to Cuba. For years, the U.S. government has only allowed direct flights to the island from approved ports of departure such as Miami and Atlanta. That would have meant an extra stop.

The airport requested a waiver from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. That approval came through last week, opening new possibilities for travel from the Twin Cities.

Editor's note (1 p.m.): An earlier version of this story misspelled Beth Kellar-Long's name. The story has been updated.