So far on its first American tour, every time the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba has opened with the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "La Bayamesa," the Cuban anthem, the audience has responded with a standing ovation.
"It is like a big explosion of emotion," says the orchestra's conductor, Enrique Perez Mesa. "For a Cuban orchestra to play the American national anthem is as important as playing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky."
Beethoven, Mendelssohn, George Gershwin and music from Latin composers will be on the bill when the 72-member Cuban Symphony continues its 21-city U.S. tour at 7:30 tonight at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.
The history-making event is part of a cultural exchange program with the Florida Orchestra that included a panel discussion at the University of Tampa on Tuesday and master classes for student musicians taught by Cuba musicians.
On the panel with Mesa was jazz pianist Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera, who performs a solo with the symphony in tribute to Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, who moved to Tampa after Fidel Castro took power.
Herrera says the Cuban people love music.
"Music is a part of everyday life. They need it, and without music, the island would sink," says Herrera, who has dual citizenship.
Panelist Angela Cassette, operations director for the Florida Orchestra, says the cultural exchange program has been a tremendous success.
"One of the really amazing things about music is that it allows you to interact with people you don't know and become immediate friends," she says. "The things that unite us as human beings are so much greater than things that divide us, and the beautiful thing about music is that it makes the differences fade."
"We have been traveling for almost 6,500 miles, and that is like going to space and back," says Perez. "It has been an intense tour, but great. But the most important thing has been the spiritually fulfilling collaboration."
Founded more than 50 years ago, the Cuba National Symphony has toured other parts of the world but not the UnitedStates. This tour began Oct. 16 in Kansas City and ends next week in West Palm Beach.
The Florida Orchestra's cultural exchange with the Cuban Institute of Music began last year when a group of musicians visited Havana, performed and held master classes.
Florida Orchestra principal horn player Bob Dearborn, who was on that trip, told the panel Tuesday he was impressed by how focused the Cuban students were.
"I wish I had that same work ethic when I was in school," he told the panel. "There was no sense of entitlement, no one was watching the clock, they seemed totally engaged. I wish more students here could learn to operate that way, getting the most out of every moment."
During the master classes at the University of Tampa, five Cuban musicians worked with students, giving instruction on various instruments. For example, with the aid of student interpreter and Spanish major Michelle Torrech Perez, a Cuban music professor, Arelis Zaldivan Copello, helped cellist Chelsea Bernstein bring a dynamic interpretation to a selection from Beethoven.
Perez says that this tour could be the beginning of more cultural exchanges.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight
Where: Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg
Tickets: $15, $30 and $45, available at Floridaorchestra.org or (727) 892-3337