11 days Cuban- European Youth Academy in Hesse:

An extraordinary cultural encounter


By Elisabeth Hellenbroich


An important cultural encounter took place in the context of this year’s “Rheingau Music Festival” which since more than 25 years organizes every year a musical summer festival in the Rheingau (Federal State of Hesse), bringing together top artists from around the world. This year under the direction of German conductor Thomas Hengelbrock a “Cuban-European Youth Academy” (“CuE”) convened between August 17th to 28th , in order to participate in various workshops and rehearsals for chamber music performances and  the final 27th August concert in the Kurhaus in Wiesbaden. On the concert program during this period was also a “Cuban Night” with “Soneros de Verdad” which transmitted a lively sense of the Cuban musical tradition. The work of the “CuE” was under the patronage of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Following the diplomatic opening between Cuba and the United States (December 2014),  he was one of the first European foreign ministers and the first German Foreign Minister who visited Havana in July this year in order to discuss the future of bilateral Cuban-German relations.


Part of the musical program of the “CuE” which consists of 30 selected Cuban musicians and 30 European music students, was an intensive work on the first version (1841) of the Symphony No. 4 in D minor op. 120 by Robert Schumann and on W.A. Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major K. 219 with the outstanding soloist Arabella Steinbacher, as well as work on several Cuban compositions.


The musical program was studied by the orchestra players in workshops, where the players worked under the direction of lecturers – musicians of the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble. Among the lecturers was for example Florian Schüle (Clarinet), who rehearsed with the woodwind section. Aside him there were Violin, Viola and Violoncello teachers as well as Pedro Abreu, who led the workshop on Cuban rhythms. In addition the participants of the “CuE” were offered various workshops, for example about Cuban rhythms and improvisation, but also workshops on historical performance practice and different facets of Cuban music. The general orchestra rehearsals took place under the conductor Thomas Hengelbrock.


The need to promote Cultural Dialogue


The patron of the “CuE” project, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a special greeting qualified the “Cuban- European Youth Academy” as a “new level of cultural exchange.” “Under the artistic direction of conductor Thomas Hengelbrock 60 musicians from Cuba and Europe come together for two weeks in the Rheingau in order to rehearse for a final symphony concert”, Steinmeier stated. “ The program includes Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. I can think of no better musical work that is able to musically accompany the new phase in Cuban-German relations. This work epitomizes everything that our bilateral relationship needs: empathy, courage and a readiness to seek common ground.”


During the dress rehearsal (26th of August at the Kurhaus in the city of Wiesbaden) one could get a vivid insight into the conductor’s artistic work with the orchestra. Since two decades Hengelbrock is director of the Academy Balthasar Neumann and the Balthasar-Neumann- Ensemble; since 2011 he is chief conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra. Having received the Herbert von Karajan 2015/16 award, Hengelbrock has gained a lot of experience in the performance of baroque works. In the past, he also worked with well-known conductors such as Antal Doráti, Witold Lutosławski and Mauricio Kagel. During the dress rehearsal on Schumann’s fourth Symphony and Mozart’s Violin Concerto, Hengelbrock put a lot of emphasis on the elaboration of the dynamics, the articulation of certain musical phrases, the balance of tempos and rhythm and the expressive interplay between orchestra and soloist (i.e. in Mozart’s Violin Concerto with soloist Arabella Steinbacher), as well as emphasis on the transitions of the movements in Schumann’s Symphony No.4 (Schumann didn’t want to have a “break” between the movements which in 1841, when the first performance of the Symphony had been given, had been poorly received by the public.) The conductor was making the new pulse between the third movement, scherzo and the fourth movement, finale, transparent.


Music as a universal language


During a panel discussion under the moderation of Hessian radio journalist Christopher Plass,  Hengelbrock had the opportunity to present the history of the Cuban-European Youth Academy. The foundation for the project was laid in spring of 2014 when Thomas

Hengelbrock was asked by the foundation Mozarteum Salzburg to get in contact with the Cuban University of Music and Arts, the “Instituto Superior de Arte” (ISA) in Havana. Together with members of his Balthasar-Neumann- Ensemble, Hengelbrock began his work in Havana with a group of Cuban university students who worked with him on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica (Symphony no. 3). He was deeply impressed by the Cuban musicians, the high level of concentration and their enthusiasm to develop a musical concept. Hengelbrock pointed to the “paradox” that he confronted at the time: On the one side he found very talented musicians in Cuba, on the other side the most basic things are “physically” lacking, such as adequate instruments or scores. In addition it was difficult to sustain rehearsal discipline, because not every orchestra player could arrive in time. Some of the players, who live outside of Havana, couldn’t arrive in time because the bus had a flat tire or other things didn’t function in terms of transport.


Hengelbrock recalled the saying of the German romantic poet Novalis “Wherever there is true enthusiasm you’ll find the top of the world.” “I was impressed by the friendliness of the people”, the conductor said and he described that during his stay in Havana he took the decision to make this musical work “sustainable” and give it a solid basis. Even if he himself was only a musician, “we live however in a world full of destruction where people are leaving their homes and for many there is just hopelessness. It is an illusion to believe that we could change this world. However we can show as musician, as music performers that music is something else than building bombs.” He underlined that music is closely linked to the question of education and the development of humanist European culture. European classical music today is a “World Cultural Heritage”. “One has only to look around the world. Not only in Europe but also in Asia, Latin America and on the African continent more and more concert halls are being constructed, because people are longing for good music”, Hengelbrock said. “Music is a ‘universal language’ which brings together people from different religions, cultures and skin.”


The director of the Rheingau Musik Festival, Dr. Michael Herrmann, who in April this year had visited Havana, answered when being asked about the future of the “CuE” that the work of the Cuban-European Youth Academy will be continued in the future and that a new schedule has been fixed for the year 2017. He pointed to the generous support, which had been given by various German institutions, among them by the German Foreign Office and the “Goethe Institute” and that the musicians were housed very comfortably at the Wilhelm Kempf House in Naurod, an institution of the diocese Limburg. “I am impressed by people and their joy of life in Havana”, Herrmann said. “Havana”, he continued, was “one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”


The German entrepreneur Jürgen Nicklaus – CEO of the branches of the German company “Stefan Messer GmbH” (manufacturer of industrial gases) in Havana – was asked during the panel discussion, how he was experiencing the opening of Cuba. Despite the high expectations that we associate with the opening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, Nicklaus emphasized that these expectations will not be realized as quickly. There still prevails a trade embargo by the United States, although currently in the country a lot is in motion and many people have begun top set up small enterprises. His company the “Stefan Messer GmbH” (Bad Soden), is currently engaged in three joint ventures. In addition to the supply of Cuban hospitals with oxygen, “we produce 97% of Cuba’s industrial gas.”

Until 1959, as he recalled, Cuba had been in American hands. From the 60ies 85% of Cuba’s foreign trade was conducted with countries such as the former SU and former Eastern Bloc countries. That however changed abruptly in 1991 and between 1991 and 1995, Cuba had to face major economic difficulties. Thanks to the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuba has been given a lot of economic support since 1995.


Hengelbrock as well as the deputy Director of the ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) Havana, Mrs. Marylin Cruz Insua who expressed her gratitude about the excellent artistic cooperation, were optimistic that Cuba will find its way into the future without losing the best of his cultural identity. Hengelbrock pointed to his own personal experience in Cuba during the last two years: He got to know a proud, self-confident nation. The standard of education is very high, he underlined and Cubans were among the countries with the highest education standards in Latin America. Cuba has an excellent health care system, with “health centers” that are serving the population for free. “The most important ‘asset’ of Cuba is the educational standard of its people and the children“, he said. As he himself could experience there, children can grow up and play in the streets of the city suburbs “free of fear”. “This is a reality which in today’s Germany is unthinkable.”


According to Hengelbrock, the impulse for the “CuE” is the “motivation and passion” which guides the orchestra players in their work. He pointed to the phenomenon that during their work in the Rheingau even after a 10-hour rehearsal, some players could not stop and just continued playing in smaller ensembles – often before breakfast or after dinner. They would play, as one could see during the dress rehearsal, music from the classical repertoire under the direction of Cuban violin player Jenny Peña Campo, who also – as she outlined during the panel discussion – was going to present her own compositions at the final concert. What counted for her in the “CuE” was the importance of the cultural encounter between the Cuban and European culture, the rhythmically strong Cuban music and the classical European music.


“Culture knows no borders”, Hengelbrock underlined during the panel discussion. The only obstacle is the quality of the instruments that will have to be renewed, hopefully with the help of donors. He mentioned as an example the clarinet maker Stölzl from Wiesbaden / Biebrich who last year donated a clarinet to the Cuban Orchestra. What was also needed, as Florian Schüle – a musician from the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble – reported during the panel discussion were musical scores. The key concept of the “CuE” according to Hengelbrock is: “We must care for the young orchestra players and train them so well that they can found their own orchestra.”



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