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Mozart And 'The Peanut Vendor' In Havana

Last month, American pianist Simone Dinnerstein was in Cuba preparing for her current North American tour with an orchestra of young musicians from Havana. She fondly recalls one very hot rehearsal.

I feel like I've known Cuba for most of my life. When I was nine years old, my piano teacher Solomon Mikowsky, a Cuban Jew of Polish descent, told me stories of growing up in Havana. When I finally visited there myself in 2013, I fell in love with this city filled with music and appreciative audiences. I've been back several times: to record my latest album, Mozart in Havana, with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, and just last month to rehearse for our current North American tour.

We made the album and rehearsed in the Oratorio San Felipe Neri, a church right in the middle of Old Havana. It's one of the city's central places for music, with a school for music attached. If the musicians look very much at home there, that's because they are.

The building doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it's a beautiful, intricate space full of nooks and corners. At the time of the revolution, the cross was removed from above the altar and replaced with a huge clock. The clock has stopped and none of the orchestra members can recall it ever having worked. There is also a resident cat.

What I remember about this session is the brutal heat – it was so hot that even the Cubans were complaining, and they're used to it. But more importantly, I remember the joy that suffused our time together.

In this video, we're playing an arrangement of "El Manisero" (The Peanut Vendor), a classic Cuban song from the 1920s, with a splash of Mozart on top. The applause at the end was deserved as it was the first time that our performance had gone well.

It was so hot that even the Cubans were complaining, and they're used to it.

Our arranger is Jenny Peña Campo, the second violin soloist in the video to stand and improvise on the theme. The orchestra is a real community, but for some reason Jenny doesn't like the oboe. Although she is friends with both of the orchestra's oboists, she left them out of her arrangement. If you watch the video carefully, you'll see Claudia Toledo Leyva, the second oboist, take up the maracas instead, wielding them with enviable panache.

For the tour, we persuaded Jenny to add an oboe line for Frank Ernesto Fernández, the principal oboist, but we've kept Claudia in the percussion section because – well, how could you not?

(Video Courtesy of Articulate with Jim Cotter)

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Simone Dinnerstein