Minnesota-inspired Cuban American Youth Orchestra launches its first tour

Rena Kraut (center) with Elio Hernandez Rojas and Ninian Rodriguez Rego
Cuban American Youth Orchestra founder and executive director Rena Kraut, center, with Cuban musicians Elio Hernandez Rojas and Ninian Rodriguez Rego.
Euan Kerr | MPR News 2018

Eleven members of the Minnesota Orchestra will fly to Cuba on Monday to act as mentors for the first tour of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra, or CAYO.

The organization consists of 25 youth musicians from the U.S. and a similar number of Cubans. It grew out of the Minnesota Orchestra's historic tour to Havana in 2015.

Planning for the collaboration started soon after the return from that tour, as it appeared relations between Cuba and the U.S. were opening up in a way which would allow for a joint youth orchestra to tour in both the United States and Cuba. However, after the 2016 election, relations changed between the countries, and the Trump administration closed the visa office at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, making it impossible for many Cuban musicians to travel to the U.S.

CAYO executive director Rena Kraut said the political antagonism between the U.S. and Cuba complicated and delayed arrangements for the first tour. There have been several smaller visits by U.S. musicians to Cuba, and some Cubans with dual citizenship have visited Minnesota to raise support for the project.

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During the inaugural tour, the young musicians will rehearse all week, with the help of the Minnesota Orchestra professionals.

Osmo Vänskä
Osmo Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra in Havana in May 2015.
Yamil Lage | AFP | Getty Images 2015

There will be three concerts in the tour. First up is a chamber event on Thursday with the American mentors and Cuban professional musicians. The first full CAYO concert will be the following day in the city of Matanzas, on Cuba's northern coast. It will be an outdoor event open to the public. The final concert will be Saturday at the National Theater in Havana.

After all the delays, Kraut said the Saturday concert is likely to be an emotional experience.

"To me this concert and this whole week is a celebration of that youthful optimism, that hope for the future and that desire to keep pushing that engagement and friendship and trust between our two countries," she said before leaving. "And so I just think that last concert is going to be a culmination of all those feelings."

The concert will be part of the Cubadisco Festival, which the Minnesota Orchestra played during its 2015 visit. This year the event is part of the celebrations of Havana's 500th anniversary.

Kraut said that in addition to spare strings and sheet music, the musicians are taking more basic supplies following reports of shortages in Cuba.

"I would love to bring things like cooking oil, which they have a shortage of, and eggs, but we can't," she said. "So instead we are bringing other basic necessities that are in short supply in Cuba, such as soap and shampoo and other toiletries, as well as some medical supplies."

CAYO organizers said they hope that this is just the first of many tours in Cuba, and that at some time in the future the youth orchestra will be able to also tour the United States.