Havana 1929: The Minnesota Orchestra’s First Historic Tour to Cuba

Cuba week!

This week the Minnesota Orchestra is embarking on a historic musical tour of Cuba— they will be the first performances by a major American orchestra in Cuba since President Obama announced his intentions to normalize relations between the countries. The community is shimmering with excitement.

But this isn’t the first historic tour the orchestra has made to Cuba. In 1929, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (as it was called at the time), made its way to Cuba under the direction of then-Music Director Henri Verbrugghen; it was the first oversees tour the orchestra had ever embarked on. The tour was a smashing success that did wonders to raise both the orchestra’s artistic standards and its reputation. Plus, the wonderful publicity the tour generated was a public relations bonanza for the city of Minneapolis, which had been struggling to present itself as a cosmopolitan metropolis.

In preparation for this week’s departure, I’ve been rummaging through the archives to learn more about this previous tour. It’s fascinating to see that even though nearly a century separates the orchestra’s last tour to Cuba and this one, the two tours share many points of similarly. I’m sure that in reading the goings-on from back then, many musicians, administrators, and supporters will see a bit of themselves reflected back.

Allow me to share that story.

* * *

The Minneapolis Orchestra (now known as the Minnesota Orchestra) heads home from Havana after the 1929 Cuban tour. From left: violinist and personnel manager Max Schellner, music director Henri Verbrugghen, violinist Jenny Cullen, orchestra manager Arthur J. Gaines, trombonist Fred Molzahn, cellist Chris Erck and violinist Russell Barton.

When the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra announced it was embarking on its first-ever overseas tour, the news was greeted with jubilation. It was a point of pride not just for Minneapolis, but for the region as a whole. The tour was extensively covered by the local press—but this coverage was colored with a quintessentially Minnesotan refusal to come off as too proud. The resulting news stories twisted themselves into knots in an attempt to come off as exuberant, yet reserved. From the Minneapolis Tribune:

The symphony orchestra is off again on one of its long, strenuous winter tours. It will be gone about five weeks, and is to visit about 30 cities, playing two concerts in some of them, including the sixth annual pairs of concerts in Pittsburgh and New Orleans. This indicates that the Minneapolis orchestra may harbor a suspicion that the music patrons of these cities regard it as something special, orchestrally speaking.

We absolutely refuse to boast, although other orchestras from famous music centers in the country also visit these same cities and fail to receive the welcome accorded our own.

While they tried not to boast too incessantly, Minneapolis’s civic leaders were clear that having an orchestra of international stature was important for their community’s image—it projected a level of sophistication, and served as recruiting tool to attract talent. As the Minneapolis Star wrote at the time, “[the tour] is subtly spreading the name of Minneapolis by the best possible medium” to a much broader world. As the orchestra’s business manager Arthur Gaines said, “The publicity value to Minneapolis of the two engagements in Havana is incalculable.”

There were other reasons to support the tour as well; local business leaders hoped that the tour would encourage closer economic connections between Cuba and the Twin Cities. A successful tour could help open the door to lucrative Cuban markets.

It was a win-win for everyone.

* * *

With great fanfare from the home crowd, the five-week tour kicked off on January 13, 1929 in a special train made up of Pullman cars that had a separate baggage car, along with dining and lounge cars attached. The goal was to be entirely self-contained, so that the group did not have to make hotel or dining reservations. They would all load up to get to Havana from Miami via boat, and the Havana portion was the only time the personnel stayed in a hotel. All told, the trip involved 85 performers, with instruments, support equipment, luggage—essentially, the orchestra was traveling into unfamiliar territory with everything they might possibly need.

Such a mammoth undertaking stretched the organizational capacities of the young ensemble to the fullest, even though they had experience in traveling across the United States. Fortunately, the orchestra had found just the man to lead them. All the logistical details were managed by Arthur Gaines, a man who possessed an extraordinary mixture of tenacity, quick thinking and grit; Gaines was hailed as a “benevolent pater familas” who never failed at getting things done. His zeal for organization meant that Music Director Henri Verbrugghen only needed to worry about conducting, and catching a few winks of sleep on the train.

Gaines was assisted by a support staff that any arts organization would have killed to have. One of his most important lieutenants was stage manager Sam Grodnick, who had a legendary reputation in the industry as a man who—uniquely—had never lost a single piece of baggage, a sheet of music, or an instrument. Sam was fiercely protective of unblemished record, and was determined that absolutely no detail would go awry.

Another gentleman with an unsullied record was Herman Boessenroth, who served as the orchestra’s librarian in addition to playing trumpet in the ensemble. He, too, was hailed in the press as holding “the world’s record for reliability, for he has never been known to lose a piece of music or to have made an error in placing on any of the 86 stands.”

Alas, there was no such record of perfection in regards to herding the musicians around at the various tour stops… on a previous tour to Winnipeg, a certain concertmaster got lost trying to catch the train on the way home. Max Schellner, who did double duty as violinist and personnel manager, was determined that so such disaster would befall the Cuban tour; he kept a vigilant lookout for stragglers and used a firm hand to guide the group from place to place.

Given our parallel situations, I can perhaps most identify with Carlo Fischer, who in addition to playing cello served as the orchestra’s traveling publicist. His list of official duties:

Carlo must keep up his enthusiasm, he must never lose his imaginative powers, and he must keep the people at home in touch with all the experiences the orchestra enjoys.

I’ll try to live up to these demands myself.

Together, this leadership team made sure that every detail of the five-week excursion was attended to, and expertly guided the orchestra as it made its way south.

* * *

Even before the orchestra arrived in Havana, the trip’s organizers realized it was going to be successful beyond anything they thought possible. At a preliminary stop in Chicago on January 14, the orchestra was received with riotous acclaim. Press at the time remarked that the ovations that followed the performance were lusty and enthusiastic, lasting for several minutes, and leading to repeated bows by Verbrugghen and the performers. The raucous reaction was all the more remarkable in that the weather was atrocious; temperatures had plunged well below zero, and many ticket-holders decided to stay home.

But there was better news to come. While in Chicago, the orchestra learned that the Cuban public was going wild with anticipation of its arrival. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was only the third visit by a major American symphony orchestra had performed in Havana, and both of its scheduled performances were completely sold out. The Cuban contacts begged for a third concert to be added, and Maestro Verbrugghen was happy to comply.

When the musicians finally arrived in Cuba at the end of January, they received an ecstatic greeting. They were immediately fêted by members of the Havana musical society, Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical, which had formed in 1918 to raise musical standards on the island. It worked tirelessly to bring performers such as Jascha Heifitz or the London String Quartet to give recitals, and from its perspective, the fact that it lured a full-blown American orchestra was a huge coup.

The concerts themselves were smashing successes, which were hailed in the Cuban press as the most successful programs ever presented by the Sociedad. The Minneapolis Tribune, which covered the opening concert, noted:

The applause was deafening and the packed audience formed a colorful sea of waving hats, handkerchiefs and programs. Mr. Verbrugghen’s command of Spanish was not sufficient for him to express his appreciation for the reception accorded the Minneapolis players, but David Holquin of the first violin section translated for the conductor his words of gratitude.

A quick aside here. This is a wonderful image, but is a bit bittersweet for me. Between 2012 and 2014, the Minnesota Orchestra was nearly ripped apart by a particularly ugly labor dispute, but by January 2014 everything had been settled. At the first concert following the settlement, audience members gave a euphoric welcome to the Orchestra musicians that closely paralleled the welcome described by the article above. As part of its coverage of the welcome back celebration, Minnesota Public Radio published a great photo of Orchestra supporter Lee Henderson joining the in fun, jubilantly waving a green hankie as the musicians took the stage. Lee was scheduled to accompany the Orchestra on the upcoming Cuba tour, but he passed away suddenly a week ago. Looking at the joy on his face… I can’t help but think how wonderful it would have been to see him waving a hankie with us in Havana this week.  Lee will be missed.

* * *

The tour was a triumph of the highest magnitude.

The concerts were so successful that the Sociedad immediately engaged the orchestra to return the following year. Moreover, to seal the deal and further cement the ties between Havana and Minneapolis, the Sociedad engaged Cuban-born pianist José Echániz to perform Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

In truth, the Sociedad was lucky to lock the orchestra in when it did—the orchestra returned home to find that their success had greatly raised their profile. Gaines reported that “The popularity of the orchestra and of Henri Verbrugghen as increased to such a point that more dates are offered than we can accept.”

But Gaines made sure to keep his date with Havana.

On February 7, 1930 the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra returned to Cuba… and received an even more rapturous welcome than the one that greeted them the year before. Again, due to the exceptionally high level of interest, three concerts were scheduled. The first of three concerts was an unbridled success, with the final applause lasting more than 10 minutes. The subsequent evenings were received with greater and wilder acclaim, with the Cuban press hailing the performances as triumphs of the highest order.

Alas, it wasn’t all fun and games. Several people became ill in the short time they were in Havana, as a bout of the flu rippled through the ensemble. Worse, musician Georges Grisez was forced to undergo emergency surgery for an unspecified ailment; his condition was serious enough that his wife was called for to help in his convalescence, although he apparently made a full recovery.

These incidents aside, the musicians returned home to Minneapolis as conquering heroes, and the press hailed the tour as “the most successful in the organization’s history, artistically.”

The orchestra planned to return the next year, but cancelled at the last minute. The reasons are not specified, but were likely influenced by events that were unfolding in Cuba. In 1930, General Machado of Cuba declared himself the winner of the presidency following an election that was widely considered to be rigged. Unrest followed, along with hard repression from the Machado regime, and the orchestra likely decided to hold off on a return until conditions improved.

* * *

What, in the end, did the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra gain from these historic tours to Cuba?

As noted, the tour brought many benefits, including greater cohesion and a stronger reputation in the world of classical music. Civic and business leaders were thrilled at the good publicity the tour generated for their sleepy Midwestern city.

But there was another benefit, too. These concerts helped reinforce the importance of live music, both at home and at each of the many stops. Journalist James Davies, who covered the tours for the Minneapolis Tribune, made this point explicitly, in words that are as true today as the day he wrote them:

Symphonic music is still desired and desirable and the public desires to see the performers. Whatever sighs may ascend concerning radio and its encroachments, it is cultivating a taste for good music, that can never be appeased until the makers of music appear in person. This, in the writer’s opinion, will forever be true. There is nothing to be permanently pessimistic about. Music schools are flourishing as never before. Certain readjustments will inevitably have to be made, but then orchestral performers will be as much in demand as ever.


Nos vemos pronto en Cuba!


8 thoughts on “Havana 1929: The Minnesota Orchestra’s First Historic Tour to Cuba

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