Lilting wind tones filled the pillared hall of a historic former church in Old Havana on Friday as a quintet of musicians from Florida performed in the latest of a string of U.S.-Cuban cultural exchanges that have increased in recent years.
The five members of the Tampa-based Florida Orchestra, all principals on their instruments, played an all-wind program of works from George Gershwin and five other composers during the evening recital at the San Felipe Neri Oratory, which dates to 1693 and was used as a bank for part of the 20th century before reopening as a concert hall in 2004.
"It's a historic opportunity to play in such a place," bassoonist Anthony Georgeson told The Associated Press. "I never thought that I'd be in Havana playing a concert."
Earlier they held workshops with teens at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, where they were struck by the budding musicians' acumen, oboist Katherine Young said.
"As a group we were so impressed with the level of students at the conservatory and their maturity as young players," Young said. "I think American students would be surprised at how sophisticated they are."
The orchestra said it was the first time musicians from a professional U.S. orchestra performed in Cuba since 1999, when the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra made a celebrated tour of the island. The New York Philharmonic has tried to visit on two separate occasions since 2009, but plans fell through both times.
Washington's nearly 50-year-old economic embargo bars most American travel to Cuba, but such cultural exchanges have increased under President Barack Obama.
The American Ballet Theatre performed an homage to Cuba's legendary prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso in a Havana theater last November. The month before that, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra played a series of historic concerts on the island.
Meanwhile, Cuban musicians such as Silvio Rodriguez, Los Van Van, Chucho Valdes and Pablo Milanes have toured the United States.
The exchanges have not healed the rift between two governments torn by decades of antagonism, but Young said it was clear from the sessions with the youngsters that they had much in common as individuals and music lovers.
"We were able to immediately start talking about the things we know about, the difficulties that we all share with our reeds and our instruments," she said. "I think that there's an understanding mutually about music that doesn't matter where you're from ... that can help bridge the gap."
Georgeson said he speaks no Spanish and the students he was paired off with knew only a little English.
"So I would play a phrase on my bassoon, and they understood and would respond to that," Georgeson said. "We could understand what each other was saying" through the language of music.
The orchestra also began delivering donated musical equipment and instruments collected in the United States, everything from violins and flutes to strings, reeds, mutes and mouthpieces.
Georgeson said a teary-eyed professor hugged him and said students often have to play on the same bassoon reed for up to a year, when normally one might be good for just a few weeks.
"He said they have to wait months to get a reed, and here I've just given them 20," he said.
Future plans for the exchange include sending the orchestra's music director to conduct Cuba's National Symphony in early 2012 and bringing his counterpart to Tampa as part of the Masterworks series, spokeswoman Sherry Powell said.
"Eventually we hope to send the entire Florida Orchestra," Powell added.
Young said she was awed by Havana's sweeping sea views and storied but crumbling architecture, and floored by her interactions with Cuban people.
"This has been a life-changing opportunity for us," she said.
Florida Orchestra site on trip: http://www.floridaorchestracubatour.com