It took Simone Dinnerstein only about an hour or so to get from Miami to Cuba on her first trip to the island, in the summer of 2013. But when she disembarked at Havana’s antiquated airport, she might as well have been entering a different world, for how little it resembled her own.
“The only billboards there were about the government,” she said by phone recently before a concert in Rochester, N.Y. “You’d see billboards about Fidel, or about the benefits of the revolution.” The cars looked straight out of the 1950s, and she even spotted a horse on the road, dragging part of a car behind it. The place seemed almost wholly out of time.
Dinnerstein, a pianist, had come to Cuba to perform at a piano festival founded by her childhood teacher, Solomon Mikowsky, a Cuban emigre who came to the United States not long before the revolution. He had impressed on her “how tremendously appreciative of music [the Cuban people] were.” True to his description, her performance of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” a signature piece for her, was, she said, sold out and ecstatically received. “People were really going crazy.”
When she returned two years later, she played Mozart’s A-major Piano Concerto (K. 488) with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, a group founded in 2009 by conductor José Antonio Méndez Padrón. Dinnerstein admitted that before her arrival she’d had “various preconceptions about the abilities of the musicians. Before I went there, even though I knew it was a very musical society, I had this kind of colonial view that they wouldn’t be as well trained. Which is terrible to think, but if I’m honest with myself, that’s what I believed. And instead they played better than most musicians I’ve ever worked with.”
That encounter has turned into perhaps the most important artistic partnership of Dinnerstein’s career. When she returned to Cuba in 2016, she recorded two Mozart concertos — the C-major Concerto (K. 467) along with the aforementioned A-major — for “Mozart in Havana,” an album released in April. She also organized an American tour with the Lyceum that kicks off this weekend with concerts in Jamaica Plain (June 10) and Worcester (June 11).
What was so immediately striking to her about the orchestra’s playing was the polish and unanimity of its sound, something Dinnerstein attributed to the long time most of them have spent playing together. Children in Cuba, she explained, are identified as musically inclined at age 8, and most of them go to conservatory together in Havana.
“They really regard the orchestra as being family,” Dinnerstein said. “And they welcomed me into their family, which was just so lovely, because as a soloist, I’m always having to walk into a situation where I’m working with an orchestra I don’t know. And it’s hit and miss, whether or not I’m welcomed in that way.”
Polished though its sound may be, the orchestra often struggles to secure its elementary needs, such as strings and reeds. Dinnerstein was surprised to learn, on first playing with the orchestra, that its string players tuned their instruments to a frequency lower than standard concert pitch. The goal, she learned, was to reduce tension on the strings to keep them from breaking, because replacement strings were not necessarily available.
Padrón, the conductor, told Dinnerstein that “the orchestra had never had a complete new set of strings from one string manufacturer. Ever.” (She has since coaxed a number of friends and colleagues to donate strings, reeds, and similar necessities.)
Because of uncertainty surrounding the timing of the recording, the tour couldn’t be arranged on the customary timeline (roughly two years in advance). So Dinnerstein booked the tour herself, personally calling organizations and ensembles that had presented her in the past. (Saturday’s concert will be presented by the chamber orchestra A Far Cry, with whom Dinnerstein will collaborate on a new Philip Glass concerto in the fall.)
She also raised funding for the tour and made travel and accommodation arrangements. “I certainly feel like my hair has turned gray doing this,” she said, joking that “I’ve been told that if I want to give up piano I could be a pretty decent manager.”
Still, she added, it was worth it.
“I’ve discovered a lot about myself doing this project. This whole collaboration with the orchestra is an ideal musical experience for me. When I play with them, I feel like this is what art is about, and this is why I do it. That part of it is the biggest reason why I wanted to do it, to have that experience, and share that with people here in the United States.
“But also I feel like this is a time when reaching out to people from other countries is really important,” she went on. “And [to show] that we can have friendships and collaborations and that people can work together, not only between different countries but also between all the different communities that we’re going to be visiting. Everyone has pulled together to make this tour. That’s really inspiring.”
Havana Lyceum Orchestra with Simone Dinnerstein
Presented by A Far Cry. At St. John’s Episcopal Church, Jamaica Plain, June 10, 4 p.m. Tickets: $10-25. www.afarcry.org. Presented by Music Worcester at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, June 11, 4 p.m. Free. www.musicworcester.orgDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.