Magazine AM:PM
Interviews Pepe Méndez and the alchemy of the Lyceum Pepe Mendez. Photo: Manuel Almenares

Pepe Méndez and the alchemy of the Lyceum

Pepe Méndez, Director of the Lyceum Orchestra, is a man who always has his back to us -in the literal sense of the word- and, as such, we hear little from him beyond what his music tells us. The Orchestra has been present in memorable moments in Havana's concert halls. It is an extended criterion that, if the Lyceum Orchestra is there, it is better not to miss it. But... what does its popularity consist of? Confident that the answer to the enigma lies in its conductor, I arrive at the Oratorio San Felipe Neri, Obrapía corner Aguiar, in Old Havana, at two o'clock in the afternoon. 

Pepe has not arrived, I wait for him inside the building, a beautiful 17th century building restored by the Office of the Historian of the City. The room has no windows for air to circulate. The heat is suffocating, I have never felt it like this in any other corner of Havana. But I am alone in the Oratory and I take the opportunity to discover it: I go up to the stage, approach the SteinwayIf I draw a curtain, I can see the stained glass window, which cannot be distinguished from the auditorium, beyond the diffuse colors. The uninterrupted silence of an oratory is a singular experience.

-The stained glass window is beautiful, yes. -Pepe tells me as he approaches from the central aisle, together with Gabriela Rojas, musicologist of the Cabinet and manager of the Lyceum Orchestra. 

-Why interrupt their view with that scaffolding," I take the opportunity to answer a question that accompanies me in every concert, referring to the acrylic and metal piece that rests on the musicians and prevents the view of the stained glass and the dome from the seats.

-It is for the acoustics, if the sound enters that dome it takes six seconds to reach the auditorium. We had no choice but to take our eyes off everything and the stained glass windows.

The heat was still there. A two-hour interview could not be done in those conditions. So we went to the office of the "Esteban Salas" Musical Heritage Cabinet, in the San Geronimo College in Havana, and between construction works, beautiful posters on the walls and some fresh air, we stayed there talking for hours.

Who is Pepe?

Pepe is José Antonio Méndez. Born in Matanzas. There I studied all the elementary and middle level. I am lucky to be the son of artists. My father is the director of the Matanzas Chamber Choir and my mother is the director of the Espiral Dance Company, a contemporary dance company. Since I was a child I had that background: going to concerts, to dance performances. My vacations were spent between his projects. 

Was your first vocation musical?

What I really wanted when I was a kid was to be a ballplayer. (laughs). He played third base for the Matanzas 7-8 team. The year of the tryouts to enter the EIDE they did not open places and the other available option was the art school. Luckily I sang -that versatility typical of children- and life chose me for the second option. 

So I went to art school. Normally you start studying instruments at a very young age and I didn't like music enough to practice it that way. I entered the Vocational School in Choral Singing, which in theory is the most important subject for me. Light, because you only dedicate yourself to "singing", which is a natural act, for five years.

Choral singing, the subject, becomes Choral Conducting. In my year there was no such discipline at middle and higher levels, as there is now. I took the exams and passed to teach at the Professional School of Music of Matanzas. My father was my teacher (laughs) and that brought about many conflicts. 

Did he used to be more demanding of you than the rest?

Totally. He would pass his hand to my classmates and to me... with the whip. I must say that I was like that only at school, at home my parents never had to send me to school. But yes, at school everything was more complicated. I never had any privilege for being my father's son, beyond having grown up listening to the choir and hanging around the theater. 

Being the conductor of a choir, of an orchestra, is total abstraction. The method of learning is in front of two pianos, that is to say, you in front doing a choreography, you never stand in front of a choir or an orchestra. And the way one really learns is by doing it. 

In the second year of middle school the school choir was left without a director because the girl who was directing it graduated... and I wanted to give it a try. We presented ourselves as candidates for the position, students of my father. He told me no, that I had the conditions but I was not ready yet. 

Then, a little bit to go against him, I decided to study Orchestra Conducting in more depth. The Matanzas Orchestra at that time was conducted by Enrique Pérez Mesa, the current Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and when I got to him he told me: "in two months I am going to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in Havana and I have no one to leave here, do you want to stay with the orchestra, I know you don't know anything! (laughs) But in two months I'll prepare you and you'll learn along the way." 

That's what my whole life has been about: coincidences. You also have to be prepared for when coincidences come... but the fact that in that year there was no conductor for the orchestra and that I was given that opportunity is priceless. 

How was the first relationship you had with those musicians, as a conductor?

It was difficult to start conducting with musicians even older than me. I learned a lot with them, about articulations, phrasing, the discipline that an orchestra must fulfill, about music in general. 

Being a conductor not only implies musical knowledge, but you have to be a psychologist from time to time, to be a good leader, to know how to deal with people because they are your only instrument. You depend on forty, fifty people, each one with problems, with expectations, individualities, sadness and calamities. That's what you have to deal with, to make sure that everybody comes to the rehearsal and gives up their life, gives themselves to you as if they were a piano wire. 

Each musician in an orchestra is just that: part of an instrument. One does not function without the other, and each is subordinate to the demands of the music.

Directing has that human component: dealing with people, being demanding without being a tyrant. Reaching the middle ground is difficult, especially when you're younger, 16, 17 years old, you want to throw everyone out of rehearsals all the time, thinking that's the best solution.

When did the decision to go to Havana come?

When I finished the intermediate level, I took the exams for the University of the Arts (ISA). I took them for both careers: Orchestra and Choral Conducting. At that time, although I passed both, I had to choose only one to start and then, in the middle of the career, I could start the second one and take both. They wouldn't let me do it from the beginning. I decided on Choral Conducting. That was a little induced by my father, and I thank him for that because this Chair at ISA is very good. I started as a student of the teacher María Felicia Pérez. In 2005 I joined Choral Conducting, but my interest for the other option was always there. 

At that time, for almost 10 years, there had been no fixed orchestra, ISA's own. And for me, who had been working in a real orchestra, going back to choreography in front of two pianos seemed devastating. I made up my mind, I counted the musicians who were there -which were few-, we got support from people we knew at the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), we asked permission from the Dean's Office and in 2006 we were given the school's dining room. (laughs) to assemble what would become the ISA Orchestra. We had to rehearse after lunch, which ended at eight o'clock at night, without conditions, without music stands, and rearrange everything so that the dining room would be intact the next day. But we managed to gather eighteen musicians, which was enough for what we had planned. 

Coincidentally -another coincidence- in 2006 was the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, and the director of the Mozarteum of Salzburg came to Havana to unveil a statue in honor of the composer, in front of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, in the Carmen Montilla Gallery.

In the cultural agenda he had, he had written down a visit to the orchestra of the University of the Arts of Cuba, which at that time were those 18 boys who were rehearsing in the dining room. After witnessing our work, the gentleman asked how he could help us. Ulises Hernández, who was in the delegation, and the dean at that time, Vivian Ruiz, asked him for support to create an orchestra as it should be, because what we had was only a draft.

Thanks to the Foundation MozarteumAfter two years of negotiations, the ISA Symphony Orchestra was created in 2009., attached to the Lyceum Mozartiano de La Habana, at San Felipe Neri. It was intended to be one more subject for students, because our art schools have very good training, but only to create soloists. Nobody prepares you to play in [symphony] orchestras or to play chamber music. So, in the end, when you graduate, with very good luck you're going to live - what we literally call live - thanks to playing in an orchestra. As soloists, almost nobody makes a living. 

Or you leave all that and go make "soup," as they say.

Exactly, or popular music. It's the way of many and it's not bad. It's not even more or less difficult to play in an orchestra than to make a living playing alone, it's just different. So, we managed to get the University of the Arts to include the subject of Orchestra. 

That was the first big achievement, I think, marking the beginning.

And I, as a student who was not even enrolled in the career, was chosen as the director of the one that was born. That brought many problems, especially bureaucratic obstacles. If I had occupied a position in the Chair of Orchestra Conducting, perhaps it would have been a little easier, but I was still in Choral Singing.

As of 2009, professors from the MozarteumI began to work with them, to give classes in Orchestra Conducting, even before I was a professor at ISA, and thanks to that I had the opportunity to go to study in Salzburg. I took two summer courses with Jorge Rotter, an Argentine conductor who became a German citizen, and I was lucky enough to take two courses at universities in the United States: the Carnegie Mellon School of Music, in Pittsburgh, and at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, which is one of the best conservatories in the USA.

All this was before you graduated from ISA?

Yes, before the end of my studies. Six months each course. All this was under the tutelage of Ronald Zollman, conductor of the Prague Philharmonic for a long time and to whom I owe most of my knowledge, together with María Felicia Pérez, my teacher, with whom I had a lot of chemistry because she studied with my father in Germany, and they were lifelong best friends, so we were family.

When, after my fourth year, I was allowed to do both degrees, I began to study Orchestra Conducting with Jorge López Marín, who also has a European background, so, more or less, everything continued in the same vein. I had to do the ISA, instead of in five years, in six. Quite a lot. 

Do you think it has been decisive in your career to be able to leave the country, to Europe and the U.S., to study?

In Cuba there is a lot of talent, especially at that time there were very good teachers, but we are out of date, a little out of touch with what is happening in the world.

That was precisely one of my questions. I remember in an interview with Italian director Emmanuele QuarantaHe told me that at a certain moment Cuban orchestras were very relevant in the international arena, but that after the eighties they began to stagnate. I assumed then that it was that, that the Cuban Academy had not followed the rhythm of the world.

It is that. That the program is far removed from the new ways of teaching. In the university Mozarteum Salzburg, where I studied, which is one of the most renowned music universities in Europe and, therefore, has very advanced methods, there are 200 violinists studying, just for Orchestral Performance. And only four in the whole university will be soloists -machines, they play perfectly. You study to play in orchestras, and that takes its toll in the end. 

In Cuba there were times when the orchestras were very good, from the times of the Havana Philharmonic, founded in 1928 until 1958. The best musicians in the world came to Cuba, the circuit was: Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Teatro Amadeo Roldán in Havana and Carnegie Hall in New York. We are talking about Igor Malkevich, soloists like Oistraj, Stravinski, in short, Cuba was an obligatory stop and not by chance, but because in the 19th century it produced some of the best musicians of the continent. Who knows why in an island like this there was such an explosion of the arts. I only know that many of the best Latin American musicians of the 19th century were Cuban. It is also true that they all studied in Europe, but Cubans nonetheless.

Pepe Mendez. Photo: Manuel Almenares

Pepe Méndez. Photo: Manuel Almenares

Do you think there is a solution to somehow make up for lost time, a way to rejoin the international limelight?

The solution is to do what we started with the ISA, but from the elementary level. It is the only real solution. From the time the children are six, seven years old, teach them to play from the orchestra, to learn to listen to their partners, to work together, because the individualism of the soloists brings many vices when it comes to coupling with the rest. It's like a soccer team, it's no good if you have the eleven best stars in the world, sometimes it's even worse.

What we have to achieve is that each one puts his or her little bit of sound to achieve a common sound, which in the end is what defines the orchestra: a single sound, a single instrument.

Are the musicians that make up the Lyceum Orchestra right now mostly ISA students?

ISA graduates who did their studies with us. Before, what used to happen was that they graduated and could not continue in the orchestra developing everything they had learned. We were fortunate, thanks to the MozarteumIt is not the same to have a foreign professor in Havana than to be in a place that breathes classical music. Having a foreign professor in Havana is not the same as being in a place where classical music is breathed. Many great orchestras are accessible, one is constantly playing in them. The idea was that, when they returned, the rest of them would drink from what they had learned. 

So imagine, when they graduated they could no longer continue with us and that interrupted the whole process. They were sent to give Solfeo or Music History classes anywhere. It was a waste of talent, time and money. So we looked for solutions: why not create a space where musicians could continue working in the same way? And with the support of the Office of the Historian of the City, the Orchestra of the Lyceum of Havana was created, as a separate entity from the ISA Orchestra, where the most advanced students do their pre-professional practice, without leaving the ISA Orchestra.

Does this mean, let me get this straight, that the ISA Orchestra is still in operation?

Yes, right now we are struggling. After the pandemic everything was complicated. Curricula had to be cut back. The Orchestra was reduced in students and rehearsal hours. We made the ISA directors understand that in order to have an orchestra -although it seems obvious- you need people, you need students. It's unbelievable that at ISA there are four violin students, out of the five years of the career. That way you can't have a string session, I'm not talking about quality, I'm talking about basic mathematics. The minimum an orchestra can have is twelve violins. 

But what has happened to the music students at ISA?

Well, first the massive exodus that has left us without musicians everywhere, not only in the Orchestra. And then the Ministry of Higher Education made an agreement with the Ministry of Labor and allowed higher education students to work. Most of the jobs are full time and the students are asking themselves the understandable question: either you study or you work. It is a fallacy that you can be a regular ISA student, with classes from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, and work. It has to be for meetings. Then, everyone wants to enter the ISA directly by course for workers and with them you can't put together the orchestra, because they don't have the systematicity needed for it. It doesn't work to rehearse once a month.

How long has the Lyceum Orchestra itself been active?

Since 2016. Thirty musicians sponsored by the Office of the City Historian. They themselves are very rigorous in their studies. Usually, when the musicians start working they stop studying, but it is necessary that the musicians of the Orchestra continue studying, because we make continuous auditions and those who do not perform well enough know that they have people outside waiting to enter. The trajectory and merit have made us maintain discipline and quality. 

I have seen that it happens a lot, I guess because of the lack of musicians everywhere, that instrumentalists are repeated in several orchestras. Sometimes I see some in the Lyceum that I later see with Guido López-Gavilán, with Daiana García, and so on.

Yes, that's it. There are few of them and they need several jobs to survive. That's why we have the initiative, which should start this year, in September, to create orchestral workshops for young people of intermediate level. For this we have the support of the Fondo de Arte Joven (FAJ), the Office of the Historian of the City and the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, which will send, at least seven times a year, teachers to work with these young people.

We had the idea of starting this project with eight boys this year, and almost fifty auditioned. They exceeded our expectations. A lot of them are really good, so we decided to start with twelve. 

I think that, in spite of classical music being historically consumed by minorities, the Lyceum Orchestra has achieved a certain popularity among the Cuban public. Many people know the Orchestra, the concerts are full, they recognize its conductor, they associate it with many good concerts. What factors do you think have come together to make the Lyceum Orchestra popularly known as the best of the active orchestras?

There are several factors to maintain a loyal audience and to make it grow. Important has been the visibility given by the Lyceum Mozartiano de La Habana, with the support of the Office of the Historian, of Eusebio Leal who was a visionary and supported the idea of the Orchestra at all times. 

I don't distinguish between popular music, classical music and so on. For me there is good or bad music. I think the fact that we have also played popular music has had an influence, and that broadens the spectrum of the public. When they see you playing Van Van, another public comes to consume that music, which is still in a classical format, but it is closer to them. 

Believe it or not, classical music is incorporated into our system, into our learning: we all watched Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Elpidio Valdés, the music we hummed from those little dolls is played by very good symphony orchestras. Or when you watched From the Great Scene and you would hum the beginning, and you wouldn't say "oh, Tchaikovsky's piano concerto" but you would say "oh, the music of From the Great Scene". Anyway, it's in our subconscious, people don't consume it because they don't have it, or because they don't know they have it. It is not given enough promotion and it is not known what is affordable... and those privileges are not very common in the world.

Exactly, suddenly one Saturday you find Rolando Villazón singing in San Felipe Neri, at ten Cuban pesos per ticket, after having sung in La Scala and charged $300 per person.

Exactly, and the place barely fills up (laughs). It's more of a communication problem than anything else, I think. People consume what you want them to consume. It's true that not everyone likes it, but we are convinced that our most loyal audience is only a small percent of those who might come if they knew the prolific program of our regular concerts. That's not counting the fact that people have their own problems, so exhausting, and that they don't have time or desire to come to San Felipe Neri on a Saturday at four o'clock in the afternoon, plus transportation, heat, daily life.

At some point in time, a remarkable effort was made in cultural policies to achieve quality products. In fact, the Revolution invested a lot of money in education, health, sports and culture, because at the end of the day that is the face of a country before the world. You may not know the GDP, but you will remember the names of artists and sportsmen and women, and it is a pity that in recent times this has not been one of the priorities. 

Do they help them from the Mozarteum with instruments for the Orchestra?

Yes, very much so. No accessories for music are produced here, the only instruments made in Cuba are guitars, tres, percussion instruments, but nothing for classical music. Violins used to be made in Camagüey, not even that anymore. All the instruments and accessories have to come from abroad. The Ministry of Culture receives donations but they are insufficient. Thanks to the MozarteumWe have donated very expensive instruments to the Balthasar Neumann, very expensive instruments, accessories such as strings, piano, we have a tremendous Steinway.

Perhaps this is another factor that makes them see classical music as elitist, exclusive. A professional instrument can cost at least 10,000 euros. A violin can cost 60, 70 thousand. A set of tympani costs 50 thousand. It is not the same when you are in a septet and you need a guitar, the most it can cost is... a thousand euros, I don't know. 

I imagine that the big orchestras cannot be self-sufficient either, but need associations, private individuals.

No orchestra in the world is paid only by the State. None of them. They all live on the support of private institutions. When you go to the New York Philharmonic, the program of each concert is a voluminous book, from the middle to the back they have to announce the people who donate from fifty dollars to those who give 500 thousand, with the same typography and size. Arial 12 for all. (laughs)

There is no way to be self-sustaining: neither by charging very expensive entrance fees, nor by selling records or videos. That money has no return, unless in social content.

I think these are the reasons why it is still seen as an elitist genre, but that has changed a lot nowadays, from free platforms where you can consume very good music, with the best recordings, to open concerts, special programs, scholarships, etcetera. 

Well, tell me a little about the "transnational" achievements of the Lyceum Orchestra, which are not few. 

Since 2009, when the Symphonic Orchestra of the ISA, attached to the Lyceum Mozartiano of Havana, We were fortunate to be able to record many albums of contemporary Cuban music. We were always criticized for only playing Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Motivated by this, we began to record our music, especially the composers of the Grupo de Renovación Musical. Thanks to Maestro Ulises Hernández and the Colibrí label, we made a cycle of six albums about the members of the Group: Argeliers León, Harold Gramatges, Edgardo Martín, Gisela Hernández and others. They were composers who began to compose in a different way and we were fortunate to make this first cycle with their music. The project brought many Cubadisco awards: Cubadisco Chamber and Concert Music Award, from 2010 to 2014. Really for the Orchestra it was a total surprise that our first albums were so recognized by the experts. The first one, dedicated to Argeliers León, was the 2010 Cubadisco Special Award.

Where were they recorded?

The first one was at the Amadeo Roldán, one of the last things that were done there. Then in the Abdala Studios, and then we moved completely to San Felipe Neri, which has spectacular acoustics for recordings. We were lucky that Miriam Escudero, director of the "Esteban Salas" Musical Heritage Cabinet, chose the Lyceum Orchestra to make the world's first recording of music by Cuban composers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as Cayetano Pagueras, Esteban Salas and Juan París, music that had never been re-recorded after 200 years, and their scores were rediscovered and reissued. To have the opportunity to record this music, to be the first people in two centuries to play it... to premiere or re-release a work for us is always a source of pride. One is used to hearing Beethoven's 5th Symphony in 200 different recordings, but to be the referent of a work for the future is a great responsibility... and a tremendous honor. 

It turned out then that, to avoid accusations of musical "elitism", we started recording only Cuban music, from the 17th to the 20th century, and a lot of popular music: we recorded with César López, with the Van Van, with Manolito Simonet, and others. Until we were invited to Salzburg, to play in the Mozart week, in January 2015. A festival where the best orchestras in the world perform. We went to play -we were lucky that Niurka González was the guest soloist- on the main day of the Festival, January 27, Mozart's birthday, and we were the last concert -of six-, which is the main one. It was a total success. We played Mozart, of course, and we closed with Cuban music: our composers like Jenny Peña, Guido López-Gavilán and Carlos Fariñas.

The Austrians don't stop to applaud for anyone, it's like a litmus test, and seeing 700 people on their feet trying to applaud with the Cuban clave, with the same enthusiasm that they applauded Mozart, was the turning point for our trajectory. At least for me, it is a before and after.

The mixture of classical music and Cuban music was not invented by us, Cuban musicians have always been characterized by being super versatile and it is something that foreigners have a hard time understanding: a musician who can play Brahms and Tchaikovsky really well and then play a danzón, a chachachá and improvise in passing. That for orchestral musicians in the world is totally different. out of mind because they are educated in the academy. 

After this we were invited to the Encuentro de Jóvenes Pianistas de Cuba and we were able to accompany Simone Dinnerstein, an American pianist who had just won several awards with a record on Bach's Goldberg Variations. She was so pleased with the level of the orchestra that she told me to make a CD with Mozart's piano concertosThe album was to be released on the 21st and 23rd, and the record label was to be Sony. One who has heard so many times promises like that, and that usually remain in the air, doesn't even believe it. (laughs). I remember she told us "I am a Jew and when we Jews say something, we do it". We forgot about it, time passed... and it became a reality. Sony Classical of New York agreed to record in Cuba, in our San Felipe Neri, and they organized a tour throughout the east coast of the USA, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Maryland, Miami, Boston. Nobody could believe it: an orchestra of young Cubans, with only six years of life, being in theory amateurs because many of them were students, to achieve a record that was at number one on the charts of the Billboards Classics... it's a difficult experience to narrate.

Pepe Mendez. Photo: Manuel Almenares

Pepe Méndez. Photo: Manuel Almenares

What happened, after the tour ended, did the relationship with Sony continue?

It's a very complex issue. What happens with a major label like Sony? The fear of a musician at the time of assigning universal rights: there are things that they will publicize because they are interested in them, there are others that will remain hidden and not even you will be able to access them. That's why musicians are now fighting harder to have the rights to their work. Thanks to digital platforms you can defend it yourself.

We also had problems with the record's earnings because of the American blockade, which is a fact. We found out that the record was even on Lufthansa planes, for five years, we saw it there ourselves. That means a lot of money. I have an application that shows me the money generated by the record. (laughs). Well, Sony keeps that money, because we don't have legal ways to get it. In fact, in order to do this tour I am talking about, we had to ask permission even to OFAC. 

Thanks to all this, we were invited to play at the Kennedy Center, one of the best concert halls in the world. They did not ask us to play Cuban music, which was a stimulus in the sense that, outside the cliché of Cuban musicians playing salsa, we play classical music well, we are recognized for it and we can take it to international stages and festivals, even if you then accompany it with popular music because people do like it. For me it is a great achievement that we continue to be invited as a classical music orchestra, at the level of any good orchestra in the world.

Tell me a little about the relationship with Sarah Willis, the German horn player, and the Mozart and Mambo album, which has given a lot to talk about.

In 2018 we were lucky enough to have Sarah come to Cuba to dance salsa and swim on the beach. (laughs). She was at a concert in Miami and a friend told her to go to Cuba and meet a friend they had in common -me- and they would pay for everything, three days, the only condition was that she would spend one day giving lessons to the horn players. She thought that this was a tremendous business, that she would not have much to do and she came to drink mojito with expenses paid. The day she was scheduled to give the class she found sixty cornistas waiting for her and concluded that something was wrong here. (laughs).

He fell in love with Cuba. He never went to the beach, although he did dance salsa and drank mojito.. He promised to return in three months to give voluntary lessons and to listen to a concert of the Orchestra. He came back just at the Mozart Festival - another thing we are grateful to the MozarteumI said, "We're going to have our own festival-and he immediately told me that he wanted to record an album at Deutsche Grammophon. "You're sure of what you're saying," that's all I could say.. "Sure, others will surely play better than you, but without passion." (laughs) "and I want us to do some Cuban music, which I really like to dance to."

Thus was born the idea of Mozart and Mambo. That we actually chose the Mambo because of the musicality of the title; we spent hours debating whether to Mozart and Salsa, Mozart and Chachachábut it definitely had to be mambo. Thanks to Sarah and the Alfa label we were able to make these three albums, the last one is coming out soon and has four other musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic.

Mozart and Mambo I was on the top classical music charts for four months in a row. The second album is currently on Lufthansa planes. (laughs) so... more virtual money. Thanks to this we contacted the Alfa record label, which has its own distribution platforms, with the Cuban Institute of Music and with Colibrí. Thus, they reached an agreement so that much of the classical music recorded here can be distributed by them. 

And if of all those stories you have to mention a special concert that has remained in your emotional memory, which one would it be?

When we did the three symphonic versions of Julián Orbón, in 2014, just before the Mozart Habana Festival. I have always been interested in rescuing music that is rarely played, and we came across this Cuban-Spanish composer who was censored in Cuba for a long time because of his dissent with the revolutionary process. He died in Miami, he spent his whole life in the U.S. He is not known here. Well, the Vienna Philharmonic in 2013, at Carnegie Hall, played the music of this forgotten Cuban. 

We took on the task, together with Ulises and the Lyceum, of rescuing the music of Julián Orbón and we had the three symphonic versions to play them in Cuba. An exquisite work, winner of many composition awards in '54, with Héctor Villalobos and Aaron Copland on the jury, who would later become his teachers... a concert I will never forget. To make real the music of a composer who felt Cuban and that we took out of the books - fortunately it has been put back -, to be able to show something so much ours and so good, for me it was a total joy.

Well, I cannot leave without talking about the reason that brought me here, after such a long time following the work of the Orchestra: Ancestors Symphonic. Tell me about that experience.

When X Alfonso contacted me in December of last year, "hey, I don't know if you've heard the album by Ancestors Symphonic"I was invited to be part of the first listening but unfortunately I was not in Cuba, I had not heard it. "Well, I have to send it to you because we want to do it live and it is a work I have been working on for two years now... and it is nominated for a Grammy. I would really like to do it in Cuba as a gift for my parents". And me, well, I'm delighted, more than any Grammy is to do the music I grew up with.

The most complicated thing was the number of people involved. He wrote for a large Symphony Orchestra, of four. Imagine (laughs)four flutes, four trombones, four horns, that is to say, everything super macro. And in Cuba there are no musicians to achieve that... I'm not talking about quality, there are none. 

The other complicated thing was to get the music X recorded onto paper. He recorded everything by ear, without writing a note on sheet music, and the orchestras have to read music for the concert. Pepe Gavilondo did the transcription... which is really a titanic task, transcribing a whole album, instrument by instrument... without words.

How long did it take you to do that?

That took from February to May. In fact, a week before the concert we were still transcribing. That's a long time. Then the complicated part was the rhythmic part, because X was based on the whole sonic universe of Síntesis and tried to take it to a classical format, with all the polyrhythm it has, music written in a different way... When transcribed in Western notation, which is the form we know, African music, songs and music that has practically no notation, can be very dangerous because it can become a "Mozart-like" symphony, even if it preserves the rhythms. So, the need for that extra flavor, for that swingI was a little afraid. At one point I said to X "compadre, but this is the music you have been doing all your lives, you don't need me", and I remember that X told me "well no, we are going to be guided only by you, so everything that happens, good and bad, is going to be your fault". (laughs). 

They were super disciplined, waiting for me to guide them... they who are Masters.

From the audience they looked excited.

They were very happy that it was coming to fruition. Two thousand people in the audience, especially on Friday, there was a tremendous energy...the first concert has, besides mistakes, the tension of the premiere. It is not usual that before starting, the audience starts applauding.  

I am immensely grateful to X -please make sure you put this in the interview- and to Síntesis for making us part of this project. I don't know if in two hundred years it will be played again, but if it is, we will be there, and that, to endure in time, is almost the artist's nourishment. 

Grateful to them, to each and every one of the musicians of the Orchestra for making so much music come true and with it, my own dreams. I am nothing without the musicians. If a musician has problems to make a living, he stands on a corner with his violin and some coin will be thrown to him, without the musicians I am nothing more than a madman moving my hands. So I take this opportunity to thank all the people who have done so much for the Lyceum Orchestra of Havana to exist.

Adriana Fonte More posts

Leave a comment

View published comments
  1. Carlos Ele Alfonso says:

    Our thanks and admiration to Pepito Méndez, an incredible musician and conductor. It was an honor to work with him and his wonderful orchestra and other musicians involved, we wish him good health and success.

  2. José Félix León says:

    Thanks for the interview. I am Cuban and I almost know Simone Dinerstein's career better than Pepe Méndez's. In fact, I didn't know what to write about him in the article I did on Mozart in Havana. In fact I didn't know what to write about him in the note I did on Mozart in Havana. It was a surprise to find that album and listen to it in Europe: thank you.

View published comments

We also suggest