A Brooklyn pianist who can’t speak Spanish brings a Cuban orchestra to the United States

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein plays with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra for the “Mozart in Havana” album. The performances include concerts in Virginia on Thursday and Sunday and Maryland at the end of the month. (Arianna Domínguez Hernández)

Geoff Edgers  |  The Washington Post  |  June 11, 2017

HAVANA — The jackhammer starts a few minutes into rehearsal. Break time is over as the workers continue on a stretch of narrow Calle Obrapia. When will they finish? Days? Weeks? Nobody knows. Three messy piles of cobblestones lie in front of Oratorio de San Felipe Neri, the 17th-century church that’s home to the Havana Lyceum Orchestra.It is certainly distracting, far more than an errant cellphone ring or someone in Row H with a cough. But José Antonio Méndez Padrón doesn’t storm off the stage or even pause. The young conductor, in a T-shirt, pushes on, through the rat-a-tat-tat, stopping only to offer instructions to the players surrounding him on the stage.

“It’s normal here,” says Jenny Peña, a violinist in the orchestra, during a break.

This month, the orchestra, a group of gifted young musicians from Cuba, will leave the jackhammers behind to come to the United States. They will play 10 concerts with the Brooklyn-based pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who recruited them for her just-released “Mozart in Havana” album. The performances include concerts in Virginia on June 15 and 18 and in Maryland on June 28.

It’s likely that the Havana Lyceum Orchestra is the first post-revolution ensemble to record for a major label — Dinnerstein is on Sony Classical — though Bogdan Roscic, the Sony executive who oversaw the project, isn’t positive and also wants to play that down.

“I’m wary of making such claims, and I also think it sort of cheapens the whole thing, makes it sound more like a stunt,” he says. “What I would say is that these are able and super talented musicians. When you add to that a willingness to capture a special moment, it becomes magical.”

It may seem an unlikely collaboration: a group of unpaid musicians on a largely isolated island and an accomplished pianist from hipster-soaked Park Slope who doesn’t speak more than a few words of Spanish. In reality, the Mozart project makes perfect sense.

The Brooklyn that Dinnerstein, 44, grew up in was far different from the gentrified area that makes most lists as one of New York’s most desirable areas. Her father is an artist, her mother an early-childhood teacher. Growing up, they didn’t have a piano in the house. Dinnerstein (whose first name is pronounced Simona) started taking lessons at 7, and eventually, her parents drained their savings to buy a piano from a shuttered nightclub for $4,000.

“As soon as I started playing, I just fell in love with it,” Dinnerstein says from the home she shares with her husband, Jeremy Greensmith, an elementary school teacher, and their son, Adrian, 15.

But she would need help. She found it first from Solomon Mikowsky, the legendary instructor who began giving Dinnerstein, then 9, lessons on Saturday mornings at the Manhattan School of Music. There were times when the Dinnersteins couldn’t afford to write him a check. Instead, he would accept a painting from Simone.

That’s her connection to Cuba. Mikowsky, 81, was born there and left in 1955 to study at Juilliard after winning a national competition. He would eventually establish himself as a longtime instructor at the Manhattan School of Music.

And Dinnerstein, as a teenager, would work with the London-based Maria Curcio and eventually study with Peter Serkin at Juilliard, but she never forgot Mikowsky’s generosity. She has always followed her own rules, whether raising money — two years before Kickstarter was founded — to record what would become her acclaimed debut, 2007’s interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” or making an album, 2013’s “Night,” with alt-country singer Tift Merritt. She’s also not afraid to poke at some of the conventions of the classical music world, including pushy conductors and the time limits allowed for rehearsals.

She would deal with neither in Havana.

“We are an island,” says Padrón, who founded the orchestra in 2009. “In the good and the bad way, we are so distant of the world. . . . We are so natural, so pure without any influence of no system or any economic situation. We don’t do it thinking about buying a house or a car after a concert. Because we know it’s impossible. We play just for fun and for love of music.”

It is not easy. Peña, the principal second violin in the orchestra, says strings are so scarce in Cuba that she learned to play on an instrument using harvested telephone wire.

“It was hard because I didn’t know why I had such pain in my fingers, but I didn’t stop,” she says. “I only knew I needed to play.”

Everybody in the orchestra works for free. The conductor himself gets by on about $55 a month, his combined salary as deputy director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba and for teaching at the University of the Arts in Havana. At 32, he just moved out of his parents’ house.

Not that he’s unfamiliar with the outside world. As a guest conductor, Padrón has worked in Canada, Spain and South America and took part in an exchange program that brought him to Georgetown University in April. He also has watched many of his friends leave Cuba, including the orchestra’s former first oboe player. He notes that she now sells Toyotas in the United States.

Mikowsky said the Cuban economic system does create a hardship for players. But it is also a blessing for younger musicians. The educational system, he says, is far less discriminating than that in the United States.

“I have been teaching at the Manhattan School of Music since 1969, and I have never had a black student,” he says. “Why? Because they were born to poor families. In Cuba, I remember when I arrived in one of the visits I had and went to go to a concert at a conservatory. And there was this black girl who took a violin in her hand and played so beautiful and I said, if she had been born in the United States, she wouldn’t have had a chance. In Cuba, as soon as they realized she was musical, they gave her an instrument.”

It was Mikowsky who recruited a group of his former students, including Dinnerstein, to perform at the piano festival he started in Havana. In 2015, she was paired with Padrón and the 45-member Lyceum Orchestra.

“I thought, I have no idea what kind of quality orchestra this will be,” she says. “I knew they had issues with finding good instruments. So, I went with very low expectations and I was just completely amazed by their playing, which was not only high quality of playing but had a kind of grace to it. I can only describe it as a sense of joy in their playing that I had really not encountered in an orchestra.”

Dinnerstein also found the orchestra’s rehearsal approach appealing. She notes that for her 2015 album, “Broadway-Lafayette,” time was so tight that she had no rehearsals with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra in Germany. That wasn’t the case in Havana.

“When I went back last summer to record with them, they literally gave me several days of rehearsal times,” she says.

She did not return to Cuba empty-handed. Dinnerstein brought fresh strings, donated by friends. Her manager, Andrea Troolin, arrived with soap, pencils and paper. And Adam Abeshouse, Dinnerstein’s longtime producer, came with his fingers crossed. He had learned, shortly before the trip, that his crates of expensive recording equipment could not be insured in Cuba. He didn’t tell her until the sessions were finished, deciding to take the risk.

“I love Simone so much, I couldn’t pull out on her after she had organized to make this thing happen,” Abeshouse says.

There were also challenges of recording at the Lyceum’s home, the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri church.

To minimize street noise, they scheduled recording from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

“Even then, there was one time where in a neighboring building,” says Dinnerstein, “somebody was drilling and we had to go pay them off to stop drilling. Also we were told we had to start after 10 p.m. Because there was a very popular soap opera on at 9 and everybody watches it, so you would hear the sounds of everyone’s TV.”

Over three nights, they captured the collaboration on “Mozart in Havana” and will bring that music to the States this month.

Earlier this year, in the Havana church, Padrón led a rehearsal as the orchestra prepared for the tour.

He ignored the work outside, bouncing on his heels with the music.

“Don’t rush, don’t rush,” he urged at one point.

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