Enrique Perez Mesa knew someday he would stand on a stage in the United States and lead his National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. And he knew music would be the impetus.
"It's always been a dream of mine," Perez Mesa said in Spanish during a telephone interview from Alabama, where the orchestra was performing. "I knew it would happen because music transcends politics. It always has."
Now, 52 years after the Cuban orchestra was founded, Perez Mesa and his musicians are on their first U.S. tour as part of a multicultural exchange program with The Florida Orchestra.
The musicians will share their talents with area residents at a 7:30 p.m. concert Wednesday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. Tonight, there will be a chamber music concert at the Cuban Club with musicians from The Florida Orchestra and the Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, and they will conduct master classes at the University of Tampa.
The 72 Cuban musicians are crisscrossing the U.S. in two buses performing roughly 20 concerts in 27 days.
The youngest orchestra member is 33, the oldest, a 74-year-old tuba player known as "El viejo mas joven" (the youngest old one) because he has more energy than anyone else in the orchestra, Perez Mesa said.
Jose Valiente, chairman of the Cuba Committee for the Florida Orchestra, said the multicultural exchange hits the right note for better relations with the island nation.
"This is a brick that is helping rebuild a bridge," Valiente said. "The Cubans in Cuba today want nothing more than to be a friend with the U.S. and music is a universal language we all have in common."
In September, the first flights between Tampa and Cuba began under a program that allows travel for those with close family ties in Cuba. And a few weeks ago, the Cuban government announced it no longer would require its citizens to apply for an exit visa.
Guest soloist Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera said the Cuban musician's tour schedule has been intense, but rewarding. The orchestra's guest pianist, Herrera also is musical adviser and one of the producers of the tour.
"The audiences have been wonderful," he said. "Audiences here are very passionate about music. People say classical music is for the older generation, but these audiences prove that this music appeals to all ages."
The musicians kicked-off their performances Oct. 16 in Kansas City and said they were "humbled" by the audience reaction.
They've also performed at venues in Ames, Iowa; Worcester, Mass.; and Schenectady, N.Y. The musicians will have racked up about 6,000 miles by the end of the tour next week in West Palm Beach. They've also performed in Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and Naples.
The orchestra played at Kean University in Union, N.J., the day before Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast. Though they avoided the storm's wrath, it forced them to cancel a performance in Virginia.
Both Perez Mesa and Herrera make it clear during this tour politics are mute and only their music will talk -- and it speaks a language everyone understands.
"This is only about the music," said Perez Mesa. "It's a cultural exchange, and only that. We know we can't escape politics because we are in the throes of an election, but this is about us bringing (the U.S.) a bit of our culture from back home."
Herrera and Perez Mesa said they selected a varied repertoire of songs to appeal to a broad U.S. audience. The men say they want to showcase the orchestra's musical versatility.
"We really want to show what we can do," said Herrera, who first played with Cuba's major orchestra as a 12-year-old. "We want also the audience to feel the Cuban rhythms. This is music you feel. It's going to be hard to stay in your seat for some of them."
On tap for Wednesday's program, George Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," as well as his famous "Rhapsody in Blue." There will be "Guaguanco" composed by the orchestra's guest conductor Guido Lopez-Gavilan, and "La Comparsa," a piece by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, and Felix Mendelssohn's "Italian Symphony." You can also expect Latin jazz, danzon, and guaganco.
There also may be a few unexpected selections.
"(U.S. audiences) are very passionate about music and they will ask for their favorite song," Herrera said with a chuckle. "They make requests and we try to please them as best we can. We always want to leave them wanting more."
While all of the musicians on tour -- including Perez Mesa -- live in Cuba, Herrera and his wife, Aurora Gonzalez, who is also his agent, have U.S. citizenship and residency and have a home in St. Paul, Minn.
"When it gets really cold, I go back to Cuba," said Herrera, mentioning he will return to Cuba in December to be part of the Havana Jazz Festival. "I call Mesa and tell him to get the coffee ready and I head back."
The Cuban musicians say they are looking forward to performing in Tampa, with its large Cuban community. And they hope for warm weather when they arrive today.
"We really want to jump in a pool," Herrera said with a laugh. "We want to get some swimsuits and soak up some sun. We haven't been able to do that."
Perez Mesa visited Tampa in May to lead the Florida Orchestra and toured Ybor City. He said he was very moved when he visited Jose Marti Park, named after 19th century Cuban patriot Jose Marti, and saw the bust of Cuban freedom fighter Gen. Antonio Maceo, known as the "Bronze Titan."
"I felt like I was walking through Cuba," he said. "It was very beautiful."
Both men say they are thankful for the opportunity to perform in the U.S. and hope to return.
"This is our job and we are doing this because we believed in this project from the beginning,' said Herrera. "It has been such a wonderful experience, and we will continue working together to bring our brothers, Latinos and Americans, the culture, music, warmth of our sun and our coffee. We hope this isn't the last time."
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