One thing's for sure: any kind of night in Havana -- symphonic or otherwise -- would have been preferable to the city's second blizzard of the season. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra sprang to the rescue Friday night with its latest Pops offering, A Symphonic Night in Havana whisking the crowd of 1,172 to hotter climes.
The eclectic program, led by the ever-witty Richard Lee, (who quipped incredulously to the audience "why are you here?") featured three-time Grammy-nominated Cuban group Tiempo Libre performing arrangements created especially for their band with orchestra.
Comprised of Jorge Gomez (musical director/keyboard); Raúl Rodrguez (trumpet); Leandro Gonzalez (congas); Tebelio (Tony) Fonte (bass); Armando (Pututi) Arce (drums); Joaquin (El Kid) Diaz (lead vocals) and Luis Beltran Castillo (saxophone/flute), the Miami-based band is known for their red-hot delivery of timba -- a uniquely Cuban genre of music that blends Latin jazz, salsa and other folkloric influences.
After being classically trained at Cuba's top conservatories, the seven musicians fled their island home for freedom, subsequently gaining popularity in the U.S. and abroad for their sizzling performances, including a guest stint on TV's Dancing With the Stars in 2009. Their latest CD, My Secret Radio, released in May 2011, pays homage to their teenage years when they fashioned homemade antennae to tune into banned American radio stations.
After two excerpts from Bizet's Carmen performed by the orchestra, the nattily dressed band members in suits and ties took to the stage to perform Baqueteo. This was the first piece to clearly reveal the strong Baroque -- specifically composer J.S. Bach -- influence on their music, followed by a jazzy Air on a G String with its imaginatively embellished theme floated out over the orchestra. Hearing Bach's serene melody juxtaposed against conga drums is unusual, to say the least, but Gomez's arrangements are so good and respectful of the original version that it worked as a creative revelation.
Minuet in G -- another Bach-infused arrangement -- showcased Mili's powerful vocals matched equally by his funky dancing, as riveting as the body isolations of iconic pop star Michael Jackson. Fuga also displayed the band members' impressive chops as they each took turns soloing, with Rodriguez blowing the roof off during his turn, a memorable highlight.
Frozen Winnipeggers also had an opportunity to shake their booty on a dance floor installed at the front of the hall. After Mili practically begged the audience to strut their stuff during the extended Mambo Medley, a few actually did, with the rest of the crowd feeling so politely Canadian. Having the house lights on didn't exactly help get the party started.
The program also included two lively bolero and cha-cha-cha medleys penned by Gómez and the University of Miami's Raul Murciano, before wrapping up with one of the band's greatest hits Tu Conga Bach.
The concert repeats tonight, 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, 2 p.m. at the Centennial Concert Hall.
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Pops
A Symphonic Night in Havana
Centennial Concert Hall
Friday, January 11
(three and a half stars out of five)