Ravinia and Cuba exchange virtuosos

Good Peformances Make Good Neighbors

By Dorothy Andries


Cuba has been in the news ever since last December when President Obama announced that the United States would begin talks to normalize relations with the island republic just south of the Florida coast. And on the evening of August 14, the day the flag was raised over the American Embassy in Havana, renowned Cuban pianist Frank Fernández was feted at a salon in Highland Park as a prelude to his American debut.

Frank FernándezHis appearance in Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall four days later was an undisputed coup for the festival. His program included the two beloved settings of the “Ave Maria”—first Gounod’s, followed by Schubert’s—Beethoven’s powerful Sonata No. 21 (the “Waldstein”), a collection of five dance melodies by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, and three waltzes and a ballade by Chopin. The finale on his program was titled Suite para dos pianos; though only one instrument was in evidence on stage, he was accompanied by a recording of himself playing the second piano part. Throughout the evening, Fernández revealed his powerful technique, evidence of his studies at the Moscow Conservatory as a youth. He also demonstrated skill as a showman: At the conclusion of his program, he held a sing-along, inviting the audience to lift its voices as he played his own lavish pianistic version of Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.”


The Cuban Connection

Nine months before Obama’s historic announcement last winter, Ravinia had already significantly connected with the government of Cuba. In March 2014 an ensemble of young chamber musicians, alumni of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute (the festival’s summer conservatory), performed in Havana’s Festival de Música de Cámara. In the spirit of international cultural exchange, they were guests of the Cuban government, which paid all their expenses within the country. In turn, the US State Department provided round-trip air fare for the musicians—yes, even including a separate seat for the cello! Musicians from RSMI were invited to return to the chamber music festival in the spring of 2015.

Madeleine PlonskerAccording to Madeleine Plonsker, who initiated and facilitated the visits, these two cultural events differ substantially from trips to Cuba by various American performing arts groups privately financed by their board of trustees and/or wealthy donors. “Both years the two governments have cooperated together on this,” she said, emphasizing the official nature of the visit. “It really has been quite remarkable.” A key figure in the realization of this exchange was Fernández, who founded the chamber music festival in 2004 and has long been a cultural icon in his native land. 

Anthony Roberts, director of RSMI, was doubtful when he first heard of Plonsker’s vision of a Cuban visit by the alumni ensemble. “I have to admit I thought it was a long shot,” he allowed, “but only a few months later, with help from the US State Department, we were there in Havana.” In fact, several stars had aligned. Every spring since 1999 an ensemble of RSMI alumni has toured the East Coast with a chamber music program, under the guidance of Miriam Fried, the world-renowned violinist who heads up the piano and strings program’s faculty. “It just happened that the 2014 Cuban chamber music festival was being held during the one week Miriam’s group had free,” Roberts explained. “The timing was perfect.”


Our Gal in Havana

The long and winding road from Highland Park to Havana started more than a decade ago when Madeleine Plonsker saw and fell in love with photographs of Cuba by a variety of Cuban photographers, including those by photojournalist René Peña. Surprisingly, she explained, though that country’s famous cigars were contraband, the embargo on Cuban products in the United States did not include art. “I began collecting works by Cuban photographers in 2002 and went back and forth to Cuba at least a dozen times,” Plonsker explained. She also arranged exhibits of her collection around the area, displaying powerful pictures that provided a look at the country and its people from the early ’90s to the present. [One showing was at Lake Forest College, which resulted in a 350-page, bilingual coffee-table book titled The Light in Cuban Eyes, published in March of this year. It contains 170 photographs from Plonsker’s collection, shot by 50 contemporary photographers, including their biographies and mission statements.] During the years she was collecting, she accumulated multiple contacts within the United States Interests Section in Havana. “Because our country did not have diplomatic relations with Cuba, the office was not an embassy,” she said, “but I got to know staff members there.”

But Plonsker’s interests go beyond the visual arts; in 2009 she became a regular patron of RSMI concerts, and that provided the catalyst for her next Caribbean chapter, which began during a blizzard in January 2013. “It really was a dark and stormy night,” she said, laughing. “I was walking past Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the UN on Lexington Avenue, just down the street from our place in Manhattan. I’d never seen anyone going in or out of that building, but just then a man opened the door and walked out into the blowing snow.” His name was Luis Javier Baro Baez, a first secretary at the Permanent Mission. “I walked past him and then I thought I should take this chance to talk to him.” So Plonsker turned around. “I am a friend of Cuba,” she declared, “and I’ve been waiting all my life to meet you.” After multiple assurances that all she wanted was to talk about a cultural exchange with Cuba, they took shelter in a bar in the lobby of the adjacent Affinia Shelburne Hotel to discuss that possibility. “He told me I should meet his friend Frank Fernández and that he would be glad to provide the introduction.” 

The Cuban devotee from the North Shore and the Cuban at the United Nations kept in touch, and Plonsker finally met Fernández in August 2013. He was interested in finding a string quartet from the United States to play in his spring chamber music festival, which was approaching its 11th year. “We went down the Yellow Brick Road,” Plonsker says, with a smile. “We mentioned the famous quartets like the Juilliard, Emerson, Pacifica—but they were all booked two years in advance.

Musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute (RSMI)“I asked him whether he would like to have up-and-coming chamber musicians, young people who were headed for professional careers in years to come,” she continues. “I told him about Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and its conservatory program for exceptional young players at its Steans Music Institute.”

Fernández has enjoyed an international performing schedule, with triumphant recitals in nearly three dozen countries, but he is also a renowned teacher, credited with changing the direction of piano training in his country. Among his more than 200 awards and accolades is one entitled Teacher of Youths, so it was no surprise that the idea of hosting a quartet of RSMI alumni was appealing to him. “At that point,” Plonsker explains, “I needed a really important person to help me get agreement from the people at Ravinia. Someone who could make this happen. So I talked to Diane.” That would be her longtime friend Diane Karzas, a member of Ravinia’s Annual Fund Committee for several decades. Plonsker herself has also been serving on that committee since 2012.

The women’s ideas were taken seriously, as was Karzas’s request that Fernández be invited to perform this summer at the festival. The great pianist had previously applied for visas to visit the United States at least a dozen times and was always turned down. Just in the nick of time, one was secured for him to get to the Midwest for his American debut on August 18.


Warm welcome

Ravinia made its Cuban debut on March 28, 2014, with an ensemble comprising Fried and RSMI alumni violinist Alexi Kenney, violist Matthew Lipman, cellist SuJin Lee, and pianist Henry Kramer. In the Basílica Menor del Convento de San Francisco de Asís, a former church that now serves as a concert venue, they performed Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 29 in E-flat Major, American composer David Ludwig’s Aria Fantasy for piano quartet, and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G Major. Ludwig’s piece had been commissioned by Ravinia for the 25th anniversary of its conservatory in 2013. “The audience went crazy for it,” says Roberts. “It was a big hit.”

The ensemble performed fourth on the chamber music series that year, but in 2015 the Ravinia group was given pride of position. “Our group was chosen to open the 2015 festival,” Plonsker effuses. However, there was a problem. The Cuban festival’s opening date of April 18 did not fit into Fried’s spring tour schedule. “So we had to assemble another group of RSMI alumni for the 2015 festival,” Roberts recalls. Fortunately, it was not difficult, as many of them have established important musical careers. “Paul Biss, who teaches violin and viola at RSMI, was pleased to come along,” he adds. Since this group didn’t have the rehearsal time of the touring ensemble, Roberts had arranged for some extra practice time in Cuba before the concert. “But our plane to the island was delayed several hours,” says Roberts, admitting that it made him worried. “However, I was able to find an empty meeting room at the Miami airport and they used the time to go over their parts.”

Violinists Stella Chen and Tessa Lark, violists Biss and Steven Laraia, and cellist Haran Meltzer opened the Cuban festival with Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, and they were joined by no less than Fernández himself for a performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major. “The Schumann was selected so Frank could play with the group,” Plonsker says, “and it was a brilliant choice. [The performance was] broadcast to every household in Cuba, as well as Mexico and Venezuela; sadly, however, not to the United States.”

“It was an honor to go to Cuba for the first time before the normalization of relations between our two countries,” Roberts reminisces. “It’s nice to think that we got in on the ground floor as things were thawing. I like to think that in some small way our presence in Cuba and our cultural exchange with the Cuban musicians may have been part of this ongoing process.”

“We got very lucky. We met the right people at the right time,” Plonsker elaborates. “I see Ravinia as a leader. We got there on an official basis before any other group, and we are operating at a very high level of cultural exchange.”