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New U.S.-Cuban youth orchestra to create diplomatic notes

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French horn player Herb Winslow and student
French horn player Herb Winslow worked with a student at the Escuela Nacional de Arte during a master class, while trumpeter Manny Laureano translated.
Nate Ryan | Classical MPR/Minnesota Orchestra 2015

A new Minnesota-based youth orchestra will make its debut in May. That concert won't be in Minneapolis, Duluth or Rochester, but Havana, Cuba.

The Cuban American Youth Orchestra, or CAYO, grew out of the Minnesota Orchestra's historic visit to Cuba in 2015. Musicians from the orchestra taught master classes to students at the Havana high school for the arts and rehearsed side-by-side with a Cuban youth orchestra.

Ninian Rodriguez Rego, a young clarinetist, remembers being in awe of the Minnesota visitors. "I was just nervous," she said. "And didn't have to. They were like my friends, and that was very good." 

Rego wasn't the only person in awe. Minnesota clarinetist Rena Kraut was touring with the orchestra, and she was impressed by the young Cubans.

"I couldn't stop thinking about them, and their work ethic and their talent and their drive," she said. "And I was inspired to create an organization where we could bring students from both countries together."  

She founded the Cuban American Youth Orchestra. Now its executive director, Kraut says that as the Obama administration worked toward opening up relations with the island nation, CAYO's founders dreamed big.

"The goal was to bring a Cuban and American youth orchestra together to travel both countries for two to four weeks, for a long period of time," she said.

Initially things looked good. Fundraising began and several Minnesota Orchestra musicians offered to be mentors. But the 2016 presidential election changed many things. 

The Trump administration halted processing of all visas at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, except for family unification. So to get young Cuban musicians into the country, they now need to apply in person at a U.S. embassy in a third country. It's an expensive option without a guarantee of a visa. Kraut admits to losing sleep as they tried to keep going.

"However, the people of both countries still have the will to continue this conversation," she said.

Students from the Escuela Nacional De Arte
Students from the Escuela Nacional De Arte welcomed the orchestra with a performance in Havana, Cuba.
Nate Ryan | Classical MPR/Minnesota Orchestra 2015

So they began doing it in another way. Kraut traveled to Cuba several times. She also arranged for young musicians such as Rego, who has a Spanish passport, to come to the United States to play and study. They have even recorded some, too.

Those activities allowed the planning to continue. With most of the Cuban musicians facing visa challenges, Kraut says that the U.S. musicians will do all the traveling for the first full orchestra event.

"For this we are taking the American half down to Cuba next summer, May 2019, to celebrate Havana's 500th anniversary," she said. "And it will be a weeklong trip where students will spend time working together, and learning each other's music and culture, and it will culminate in a live performance from Havana."

The concert, which Kraut hopes will be streamed live back to the States, will be part of the annual CubaDisco festival. It's the same event the Minnesota Orchestra played in 2015.  Eleven Minnesota Orchestra musicians will travel with the group as mentors.

James Ross, the conductor of the National Youth Orchestra in Washington, will serve as music director. An American, he also leads an orchestra in Spain and is used to bilingual conducting. He learned about CAYO only a few weeks ago, but he's excited about its potential, both musically and for building bonds between Cuba and the United States, away from the ups and downs of politics.

"I actually think that those waves are affected by the kind of things that will happen during that week, which is a sort of one-on-one contact and a making of a communal voice between two people who think of themselves as separate," he said.

For her part, Rena Kraut says diplomacy doesn't require a formal political delegation. It can happen one person to another, just sitting in a room, making music together.