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August 2015
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Cuban Pianist Frank Fernández on His U.S. Debut, Revolution, and Reconciliation



Internationally renowned Cuban pianist Frank Fernández has played in some 40 countries, but never the United States – until now. On August 18th, Fernández makes his long-overdue recital debut in the U.S. as part of the Ravinia Festival.

Fernández has lived through many landmark events in the fraught history between Cuba and the United States. His musical debut in 1959 coincided with the end of the Cuban Revolution, and more than fifty years later, in May 2015, he made international headlines soloing with the Minnesota Orchestra during their Cuban tour – the first by an American orchestra to visit the island since President Obama announced the normalization of relations between the countries.

About a week ago, I visited Fernández at his studio in Havana, where he treated me to a private performance and spoke about his unconventional education, the divide between popular and classical repertoire, and his warm relationship with the Ravinia Festival. Our conversation was facilitated by Roberto Cuba Álvarez, who served as our translator.

Describe your childhood and early musical exposure in Mayarí, Cuba.

Mayarí is a very small town, and the two main cultural centers there were a music academy run by my mother and the home of the director of our municipal band. In my house, we played classical music all the time, but all of the Cuban classics were played in the house of the director of the municipal band.

I started to play by ear when I was four, and at that age, you don’t know what’s considered “popular” and what is considered “classical.” For me, that was fortunate, because learning by both ear and formal study allowed me to assess music by its beauty alone, not by the academic level of the composers.

Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, classical music became like “cult music” out of the academy. All the great composers – Bach, Handel, Chopin, Schubert – they were all great improvisers. Now, it seems like the only improvisers are jazz musicians! And that in the twentieth century was eliminated, because of technological developments.

That’s why I’m very thankful for my life in Mayarí, because my atypical training allowed me to look at music as a purely aesthetic pleasure. There are all the other academies and levels of “knowledge,” or whatever – they don’t interest me.

Of course, you ended up having many teachers over the years: Margot Rojas, at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory in Havana, Victor Merzhanov at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow . . .

Yes, there is Margot Rojas, in the middle of my education. In New York, Margot was a student of Alexander Lambert, who was the last student of Franz Liszt. If Liszt was the greatest pianist of the nineteenth century, and the nineteenth century was the golden age of the piano, then Margot directly transferred those influences from that age to me – and that’s a miracle.

And then there’s Merzhanov. He died at 93 years old. My teacher was chosen from thousands of others to have his name inscribed in gold letters in the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

The most methodical contemporary school was the Russian, then-Soviet school. Many of these teachers taught in North America, in the United States. The United States has great masters all throughout the world, but it doesn’t have its own school. I don’t know the reason why – perhaps you can tell me!

However, in Russia – maybe because of the political approach of the system, where different humanistic and cultural values are being broadcasted – the people there force us to study the methods, the didactics, the unification of plans and programs. That’s why you can listen to a Russian pianist that can play wonderfully, and listen to another one that can play not so spiritually. But what’s universal is their technical mastery.

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I want to talk about the year you made your musical debut on the Cuban TV show La Corte Suprema del Arte. It was also the year you made your first recording, Frank Fernández y sus dos pianos.

Well, in Mayarí, people said I couldn’t become a concert pianist if I wasn’t born in Havana. I asked, “Why?” Nobody could answer that question.

I came to Havana, but I was not accepted into Amadeo Roldán. My father wanted me to be an accountant because he said that musicians die of hunger, so I began to study commerce, accounting. When I told my father that I wasn’t going to continue that, because it made me crazy, he said, “Well, OK, you aren’t going to earn any money – so you aren’t going to stay in Havana.”

I had no other choice, other than leaving, to perform in clubs and restaurants for a living. So, taking advantage of my personal training, I spent about a year and a half working on popular music. I was 15 years old, and I had to eat.

Like Brahms, right? He told stories about playing in clubs to support himself as a teenager he would have been about your age, too.

Him too, him too. I’ve recognized this, and there is a lot of concern about that.

I’d say that the difference between the classic and the popular is more a socioeconomic issue than an aesthetic one. There are many talented people who don’t have enough money to pay for school. But not having money doesn’t mean you don’t have talent.

This period when you were playing in clubs and restaurants coincided with the end of the Cuban Revolution and President Castros rise to power. Were you at all affected by the political environment or were you mostly focused on your music?

I was totally concentrated on my music. But also, the first major cultural activity of the Revolution was the universal literacy campaign, which taught more than a million people to read and write.

In that sense, the Revolution really influenced me because it emphasized that everyone had to learn, had to study. So I returned back to Mayarí to direct the local chorus, and less than a year later, I came back to Havana to take a course in choral conducting. Though I didn’t have formal training, I was given a positive recommendation, which said: “Frank Fernández could be a great choral director, but a better pianist.” That in itself allowed me to finally enter the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory.

And after a few years, I had another great challenge: Cuba held its first national contest for students and professionals. I applied for that, but I didn’t have a piano. People said that I couldn’t compete in the contest without a piano, but I thought, “Why not?”

On the day of the competition, I arrived at the Conservatory at 8:00 am, and every time my teacher went to the bathroom – for fifteen minutes at a time or so – I just went into the classroom and started practicing. I left the conservatory at 8:00 pm, and I ended up winning first prize. And that first prize award included a concert with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba and a scholarship to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

I recall that, as an emerging pianist, you either wanted to go to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory or the Juilliard School.

I knew that the greatest members of the Russian school of music were at Juilliard. But unfortunately – and this is another reason we have been separated for so long — the option of getting a scholarship to one of these places was given to me by the Russians, not the U.S. I was the first pianist that went to the Soviet Union after the triumph of the Revolution, but many have gone since.

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Just a few months ago, you performed Beethovens Choral Fantasy with the Minnesota Orchestra in Havana which, incidentally, is the same piece you played with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional after winning the competition you just mentioned.

I played that piece for the first time then, and prior to that, it hadn’t been played in Cuba before. When the Minnesota Orchestra invited me to play, I didn’t have time to prepare – I was very busy. But when they said, “We want you to play the Fantasy,” I said yes.

It was an emotional event. Could you imagine? I played it for the first time when I was 19, and later, I played it as part of the first Cuban-American musical greeting, after Raúl and Obama shook hands. Of course, we have never ceased having meetings between the U.S. and Cuba, but they haven’t been very official. But this one was official.

So I first played it at 19, and again at 71. How many years is that. . .? See, I can forget about my 71 years, but they are not going to forget about me! [Laughs]

A hallmark of your recitals is the pairing of Cuban classics alongside Western classical repertory. By performing the two together, do you hope to elevate Cuban classics to the same level of international recognition as the classical canon?

I don’t believe that any interpreter can just raise the level of any composer. I believe than an interpreter can demonstrate the real stature of a work — if it is a good interpreter. There are Cuban classics, like Ignacio Cervantes and Ernesto Lecuona, for example. They were recognized in Paris!

The fact that their music is not played that much — it’s a problem of the medium. It has nothing to do with quality. I mean, Bach wasn’t well-known for almost 100 years, and he knows a little something about music!

Now, youre poised to make your American debut at the Ravinia Festival on August 18th, a performance which comes just on the heels of the formal reinstatement of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, effective July 20th. Did you think that all of this would happen in your lifetime?

I knew it was going to happen, but not so suddenly. I don’t believe that we’re ready for this yet – specifically, I don’t know if the American people are ready for this. And I also don’t think Cuba is logistically prepared to receive the American tourist boom. It’s been more than 50 years – I mean, I had to go to Hamburg to buy my pianos because New York couldn’t sell them to me. And I am the only Steinway artist in Cuba!

So it’s complicated. But I do feel as though the people who are most prepared for this encounter – and to whom this relationship is most dear – are the cultural communities. I myself am very happy that this is happening.

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Your performance on the 18th wont be your first association with the Ravinia Festival: youve invited musicians from the festivals Steans Institute to play in Cuba before. How did that come about?

I serve as president of the Festival de Música de Cámara in Havana, and I’ve actually invited them to play twice. Madeleine Plonsker – an American from Chicago – came to see me, and it happens that Plonsker is also a patron of the Ravinia Festival.

They came for the first time in 2014, and it was wonderful. They played Schubert spectacularly. I thought, I will make some friends so they can come back, and I told them that I already had a hotel reservation and transportation. . . I didn’t have a schedule yet, but I could take them out. So they said yes, and we thought, “Why not play together this time?”

That performance is now one of my favorites, and we did it after only two rehearsals! They don’t know how it turned out, but I’m sure they are going to be very happy when they see the recording. Watch the DVD of that performance and look at the smiles on my American brothers’ and sisters’ faces: there’s just sheer happiness.

For more information about Frank Fernández, visit his website.

For more information about his upcoming U.S. debut, visit Ravinia’s website.

  • Dorothy Andries

    Hannah, what an interesting interview. Thank you for posting it.
    Fernandez is a dazzling pianist. I was happy to read more about him and look forward to hearing him, actually for the second time, on August 18 in BGH at the Ravinia Festival.