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Cuba's Ambassador of Music

Zenaida Romeu's all-string orchestra makes its U.S. debut today, playing the classical music of her country.

January 25, 1998|Kevin Baxter | Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

As a child growing up in Cuba, it was always assumed that Zenaida Romeu would pursue a career in music. After all, if you're a Kennedy, don't you go into politics? And if you're a Rothschild, won't you go into banking and wine?

It was no different for the children of Cuba's first family of music. But exactly what kind of music young Zenaida would play was anyone's guess. Would she embrace danzon, like her great uncle Antonio Maria Romeu, or jazz like her uncle Armando, the father of the island's jazz movement?

Or would she become a band director like her grandfather Armando, a classical pianist like her mother Zenaida or a music teacher like her cousin Gonzalo? Eventually, she decided to follow them all, fusing the disparate disciplines into a uniquely Cuban sound for the eight-piece, all-female string orchestra she directs, the Camerata Romeu.

"We have a national music, an autonomous music," Romeu says. "[So] in addition to doing Bach, in addition to doing whatever classic, universal music--we also include in our concerts the knowledge of the music that was born on the island."

The Cuban music the group plays, she says, is influenced by rumbas and mambos and salsa. But "it's pure music; it's music to listen to, not to dance to. Not all the music made on the island is for dancing. You can also move other parts of your body, the internal parts."

Following successful tours in Europe and Latin America, and just as the Pope's Havana visit throws a spotlight on all things Cuban, Camerata Romeu is scheduled to make its U.S. debut this afternoon in the Sundays at Four series at the L.A. County Museum of Art. That will be followed by a sold-out performance Tuesday, under the auspices of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in Gindi Auditorium at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air and concerts Thursday morning at CalArts in Valencia and Thursday night at Cal State Northridge.

Although the group gets a lot of attention for its all-female makeup, women's-only ensembles are not that unusual in Cuba, Romeu says. Besides, Romeu's main goal in forming the group four years ago was to bring together talented young musicians; the fact they were all women was pure chance.

"I was interested in showing the [talent] level of the young people in Cuba," Romeu said by phone from Havana. "I thought that it would be interesting to show that there were young people ready, prepared to get together and make music.

"In the case of women, there were a lot of young [female] graduates from the school of [music], a phenomenon I hadn't encountered [elsewhere]."

The result is a chamber orchestra of eight pieces--four violins, two violas, a cello and a bass--with just one musician older than 30. And their audiences tend to mirror that demographic.

"We have a very special following," says Hilda Barrio, the group's manager. "We've had a very good reception among young people. About 90% of our audiences are made up of young people between the ages of 20 and 30. And that's very interesting because it means a lot for the development of this kind of music."

Based in La Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis in the historic section of Old Havana, the women play a repertory that's as challenging as it is diverse, and, based on their one CD, "La Bella Cubana" on the Spanish Magic Music label, one that is indeed marked by engaging Latin rhythms and a light touch, despite its seriousness. Traditional works by composers such as Handel and Britten share Camerata Romeu's playlist with contemporary Cuban and Latin American compositions, especially pieces written for the group by such composers as Arturo Marquez of Mexico and Cubans Beatriz Corona, Lopez Gavilan and Jose Maria Vitier.

Today's concert, which will be aired live on KUSC-FM (91.5), will feature primarily Cuban composers while the program for Tuesday's Philharmonic-sponsored event will be more traditional, including Britten's "Simple Symphony" and a sinfonia by Albinoni, as well as "Homenaje a Gismonti" by Marquez, famed Cuban composer Leo Brouwer's "Cuatro Canziones Remotas" and works by Astor Piazzolla and Ernesto Lecuona.

The aim, says Romeu, is to present a panorama of Cuba's rich, if largely unacknowledged, classical musical culture.

"What they excel at is Latin American classical music, especially Cuban classical music," says Al Nodal, general manager of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and an instrumental figure in arranging the ensemble's L.A. visit.

Nodal saw the group in Cuba on a recent trip and came away thinking "everything about them is mesmerizing." But perhaps most mesmerizing was the fact the women were playing serious new music, a genre few associate with Cuba.

"That they've been able to eek out a little place for themselves in classical music is incredible," he says. "Because you know everyone thinks Cuba is just congo drums."

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