While President Obama recently made the news for being the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly a century, the Vassar choirs beat him to it by making their first historic visit to Cuba a week earlier than him. They participated in a less political exchange of music and goodwill.
Upon their return from Cuba, the Vassar College Choir, Women’s Chorus and Madrigal Singers, under the direction of Professor Christine Howlett and Professor Drew Minter, will perform a joint concert featuring a vibrant, Cuban-inspired repertoire. The “Back from Cuba” concert, a jubilant celebration of Cuba’s rich musical culture, will be held on Saturday, April 2, at 8 p.m. in Skinner Hall, and will be free and open to the public.
While the concert might sound like just another performance, the journey to put it all together required a leap of faith. Previous choir trips to Turkey, Spain, Germany, England and France had usually consisted of a few students visiting for the second time, but Howlett was pleasantly surprised to find that Cuba would be a new adventure for everyone, including herself.
In other words, the entire group would be experiencing something new and exciting together. She explained, “In my mind, it’s kind of historic, because it’s the first time we’ve ever done a trip like this where our experiences are all going to be really fresh.”
This trip was also historic in that all three choirs were able to travel together and build a sense of camaraderie they hadn’t been able to develop in past years. “One thing that was nice about having all three choirs tour together is that the women’s choir and mixed choir don’t get a chance to intermingle much,” remarked Minter.
Part of this sense of camaraderie is pure luck. Minter continued,“There seems to be a really good esprit de corps this year—it just happens to be one of those really nice years where it just seems like everybody’s getting along, so it’s lucky that that’s happening during a tour year.” Howlett added, “There’s an amazing bonding that happens between the students. You meet your best friends on these trips, and you get to know the other members of the other choirs.”
While travel is still restricted between the United States and Cuba, groups are able to obtain visas on the basis of participating in an educational exchange, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. However, free time is not encouraged, and visiting groups are expected to have full itineraries—which the choirs had no trouble putting together. Part of this itinerary included learning about the Cuban Revolution. “One of the most memorable moments was visiting the Museo de la Revolución,” April Lonchar ’19 reminisced. “It was fascinating to learn about Cuban history from a Cuban perspective.”
“Certainly the most memorable for me and many of the students was the visit to the arts conservatories, all five of which sit on the same campus,” reflected Minter. “As far as non-musical memories go, our visit to a Cuban cigar factory was fascinating, as that is one of the oldest industries in Cuba still going strong, so to hear and see how it all works was very interesting.”
Naturally, students immersed themselves in Cuban musical culture. Minter continued, “We had many meals out, and they were almost all accompanied by the presence of a band, sometimes featuring a lead trumpet or sax player, sometimes featuring singers. It was remarkable to enjoy Cuban takes on jazz standards as well as their music at every turn.”
After experiencing Cuban music firsthand through live performances in Havana and in master classes with renowned Cuban maestros, the Vassar choirs have developed an especially close relationship with the programming of their upcoming “Back from Cuba” concert. “It’s special, I think, because of that,” Karla Zabala ’19 explained. “We have a special relationship with this concert.” Lonchar added, “The choirs have brought back a sense of creative interpretation that is based more on raw emotion, and hopefully that will show in our concert.”
This raw emotion is rooted in a lively tradition of musical rhythm and energy. Minter explained in an emailed statement, “All of the [Cuban] choirs perform memorized, so they learn the music in their bones. In our western European music tradition, choirs perform almost exclusively from music scores.” However, he noted the underlying socioeconomic reasons for this difference. He explained, “It must also be said that we all have the means to acquire our own scores, which a Cuban choir may be lucky to own one single score! But memorizing the music has real benefits to how in depth you feel the music.”
The “Back from Cuba” concert will feature songs that reflect the deeply moving aspects of both Cuban and American musical culture, giving prominence to Cuban pieces honed in master classes. Each group will perform about 20 minutes of individual repertoire, reuniting eventually to sing as one large choir. “This concert is really cool, because there are a few pieces that all of the choirs are doing [together] and it’s just a lot of sound,” remarked Lonchar. Howlett added, “I think all of the music is really beautiful and worth presenting.”
Although political tensions are only beginning to dissolve between the United States and Cuba, music seems to be a language that translates everywhere. Zabala reflected, “Music is so universal … No matter what language you speak, everyone is going to appreciate the beauty of it.”