All Cuban music comes from Africa and Europe. In the tourist swarms of Havana Viejo, singers, guitarists, and drummers perform on corners, in doorways, in the streets, in the restaurants and bars. Not one of them is strumming a balalaika and singing beautiful Russian folk songs.
Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís, built in 1719 and reconstructed as a baroque wonder in 1730, loves music. Its priests and nuns sang every day for 43 years. In 1762, British interlopers displaced the Spanish colonial power, and San Francisco de Asís hosted English-singing Protestants for one year. After that, the church was mostly silent. Catholics refused to sing (or pray) in its defiled sanctity.
Photo: Orchestra during rehearsal at the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís
On a warm, starry night, I walked six blocks from my hotel in Havana Viejo to the church, in a less-touristy plaza near the old port. The student symphony from La Universidad de las Artes presented a program of Ginastera, a Ravel piano concerto performed by an 18-year-old female genius, and Mozart’s 40th Symphony, all under the direction of Jorge Rotter, the Argentine conductor who teaches at the Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg.
For the concert, most of the seats were occupied by the performers’ colleagues and families and some classical music fans. Very few tourists. The music was exceptional. Totally gorgeous sounds in a perfect acoustic space. One of the top three or four concerts I’ve ever heard. And it was free.
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