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Minnesota Orchestra's Cuba tour signals comeback, improving foreign relations

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The Minnesota Orchestra is off to Cuba this week, becoming the first U.S. orchestra to give performances in the Caribbean island nation since President Barack Obama announced changes in policy this past December.

Music director Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra will perform as part of Havana's International Cubadisco Festival – one of the most notable gatherings of the Cuban music industry – this weekend, the orchestra said in a news release

"I take credit for coming up with the idea and it was a crazy idea," Minnesota Orchestra President Kevin Smith told MPR News. "And I hope that in the end it doesn't prove to be crazy."

The orchestra's trip to the communist country begins Wednesday and includes community engagement events with Cuban music schools as well as two performances.

The tour has gained international attention for its political and musical significance for the two nations, which have had an icy relationship since the early 1960s, shortly after Fidel Castro took power and established a communist regime in the nation.

"This trip is an example of the type of relationship we want to continue building between our people. Cubans are looking forward to more opportunities to interact with Americans," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is leading legislation to lift the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, told the Star Tribune.

Violinist Aaron Janse told the newspaper they feel they are representing the U.S., adding "We have a responsibility to be a bridge between the two countries."

In 1999, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was the last major U.S. orchestra to perform in Cuba, The Associated Press says.

This isn't the first time the Minnesota Orchestra has traveled to the country – the orchestra did tours to Havana in 1929 and 1930, the release notes.

“Eighty-five years ago, the Minnesota Orchestra, then called the Minneapolis Symphony, performed Beethoven’s music for Cuban audiences. It is a thrill and privilege for us to do the same so many decades later,” Vänskä said in the release. “So much has transpired, so much has changed in the world since then. What has remained constant is the power of this music to affect and build bonds between audiences and performers.”

Revival of the orchestra

This historic tour in Cuba also signals the revival of the Minnesota Orchestra following a 16-month contract dispute that ended last year, reports note.

"It sends a very clear message this is an organization back on its feet, doing important work," Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, told the AP.

Those with the Minnesota Orchestra say the trip to Cuba will show the music world it has come "roaring back," the AP notes.

"The news about the new trip to Cuba with the Minnesota Orchestra might be the best possible chance for us to show to the music business that we are back," Vanska told MPR News. "And playing really well."

The Minnesota Orchestra won its first Grammy Award in 2014, has been invited to play at Carnegie Hall in March 2016, and is set to complete its acclaimed Sibelius recordings next month, reports note.

The orchestra's performances in Cuba – May 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. – will be broadcast live on Minnesota Public Radio's classical station 99.5 FM, the station announced.

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