Russ Bursch: On Hearing Coralina in Cuba — An Unforgettable First Impression

It was February 2008 and we were on a trip to Cuba with a group from Plymouth Congregational Church. A day into our stay, we traveled from our host town of Ciego de Ávila to the jungle town of Bolivia for a welcoming St. Valentine’s day celebration that featured an over-the-top selection of very-sweet desserts, poetry, dramatic readings and love songs written and performed by our hosts. Everyone participated, the youngest children, their moms and dads and some very-senior citizens. Returning to the hotel, the evening ended with salsa dancing late into the night followed by fireworks at 3 o’clock in the morning!
The following day brought an invitation to attend a choral performance in Ciego’s Decorative Arts Museum featuring a choir from Havana, the Schola Cantorum Coralina. We were all in awe of the performance they gave. We were the last of the audience leaving the concert space when I turned to see the conductor come down from the stage to follow the audience to the reception area. I approached her to congratulate her on a remarkable performance and ask if she had a card or some information I could take back to Minnesota because I wanted to be sure to let Philip Brunelle know of this world-class ensemble. I told her, “Your choir could be invited to perform at a future World Symposium on Choral Music and Philip, perhaps, could help you gain an invitation.” Plus, I hoped we could hear them at home in Minnesota, maybe on a VocalEssence concert season, if they were able to get to the U.S. It was a bold and spur-of-the-moment assessment as I had never known of this choir and didn’t know anything other than what I had just heard.

Well, you can imagine my surprise when conductor Alina Orraca smiled and informed me that World Choral Symposium representatives, Philip Brunelle and Venezuelan conductor Maria Guinand, had already listened to their audition tapes and the Schola Cantorum Coralina was already scheduled to perform at the upcoming (July 2008) World Symposium in Copenhagen! Here I was in Ciego de Ávila Cuba, 300 miles from Havana, and Philip was already in communication with Alina. In retrospect, I really shouldn’t have been surprised; after 10 years on the VocalEssence staff, I was reminded again of Philip’s ubiquitous influence on the choral landscape — there is no escape and not even one degree of separation!

Based in Havana, Coralina was in Ciego de Ávila for a solo performance as well as a two-day choral festival with choirs from Ciego (the city of Ciego de Ávila is the capital of Ciego de Ávila province). My partner, Lee Mauk, and I were in Cuba with a group from Plymouth Congregational Church and we made sure we heard Coralina’s performances over the next two evenings as well. Their performances over three days certainly confirmed our first impressions. Ciego isn’t a large city and we soon became better acquainted. We seemed to eat at all the same restaurants and we were all staying at the same hotel. Conversations ensued and connections developed.

We were especially impressed by Coralina’s energetic and infectious performances of a wide variety of music — Renaissance, baroque, contemporary, folk — in vocal sounds appropriate to the historic time or geographical region of their origin. Not only is Alina the conductor, but she regularly leaves the traditional conductor’s spot and performs as a member of the ensemble. We were especially grateful for the opportunity to hear new (to our ears) music of contemporary Cuban composers, music that hasn’t made it across the small distance that separates our two countries. Perhaps they might leave some of their music behind on this trip to expand the repertoire of our local ensembles. The Minnesota audience will discover that not all choirs have singers who stand like statues in neat orderly rows with eyes fixed on the conductor. These folks move, they entertain, they quicken your pulse and your toes will tap.

While Coralina has made many celebrated international concert tours, this is their first tour of the United States. Almost five years after our first meeting and against countless obstacles, the determined efforts of Philip Brunelle and VocalEssence Executive Director Mary Ann Pulk have paid off. Coralina is in the Twin Cities on its first U.S. trip and the VocalEssence audience is the happy beneficiary. Enjoy!