Zenaida Romeu Chamber Music Ensemble
By: Pedro Quiroga Jiménez / Photos: Ismael Francisco
With 14 years of experience, the first all female Chamber Music Ensemble in Cuba is still considered a novelty to its audiences. Here are some stories and confessions from the founder and conductor, Zenaida Romeu.
Arriving to Ottawa for her ﬁrst time, playing at the Parliament of Canada and dining with the Speaker at the same oval table where other important personalities like John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Fidel Castro dined, has been one of the most important events for Zenaida Castro Romeu.
Conﬁdent, dynamic, and very perceptive, the ﬁrst Cuban woman to graduate from orchestral direction is very proud of her family full of emblematic musicians.
Her great-uncle, Antonio Maria Romeu, was a pianist, a composer of Danzzmes (Cuba‘s national dances), teacher and the ﬁrst promoter of Churunga (heavily Son inﬂuenced material performed on European instruments such as violin and ﬂute) in Cuba. Her grandfather, Armando, was also a conductor of Chamnga orchestras, composed many popular Danzones, taught wind instruments, and obtained the position of Captain Musician of the Cuban Navy Band in the 1930‘s.
Eight of Armando's nine children devoted themselves to music. The oldest of them, Zenaida's mother, was a pianist, teacher, knew opera and Spanish operetta perfectly, and worked at Radio Cadena Azul, a radio station where many of the most important musical artists of Cuba were launched.
Zenaidita, as Romeu is popularly known, belongs to that lineage of creators who ennobled, digniﬁed and praised Cuban national culture. She will now tell us more about her artistic life.
The Piano, My Natural Environment
My mother had me at an old age and I knew my grandfather was very old. In a way I could have been my mother's granddaughter. Logic indicated that I study piano since it was the instrument I mostly listened to in my house. I was supposed to learn how to play piano but it was not the centre of my life.
I graduated from the conservatory at the age of 15 in music theory and harmony and by the time I ﬁnished high school I was playing piano as part of my normal day, of my natural environment.
My studies at the National School of Arts were crucial. Choir lessons were part of the curriculum and I participated in the specialty's ﬁrst festival in Santiago de Cuba. That changed my life. I felt so good that when I returned to Havana, I passed my year of studies in ﬁve months, had the highest grades, and stayed to study choral direction.
In my ﬁnal year 1982, the Higher Institute of Arts was inaugurated and I was offered the course on orchestral direction. I thought about it and accepted. There were two of us on that job: Maria Elena Mendiola and my self.
I almost immediately formed the Cohesion choir with Alina Orraca, Emilio Vega, Gema Corredera, and other artists from the Cuban contemporary music scene as members. We worked for ﬁve years. I was directing and introduced stage movement and body expression in music. We became an inspiration for many groups that were born later in time, among them the a capella vocal group Sampling. It was a renovating project of renewal that paved the way to new vocal sounds on the island.
The Chamber Music Ensemble: A Higher Sound Concept
I wanted to have my own orchestra. There was also a pejorative impression of Cuban women in music and I decided to change that image. Today there are thousands of Cuban women educated in all ﬁelds of knowledge including music.
The Ensemble was born in 1993, during the worst stages of the “Special Period”, the economic crisis period of the 1990‘s, sponsored by the now defunct Pablo Milanés Foundation. The Foundation paid for the wardrobe, salaries, etc. Without it, we would not exist today.
Ayear later, Havana‘s Historian, Eusebio Leal, offered us the San Francisco de Asis Basilica that opened it doors for the ﬁrst time as a concert hall in Old Havana as our main venue. There I realized that there were less and less old people coming to classical music concerts. We needed to attract younger people.
The ﬁrst thing was to break the visual barriers. Dress our girls with short skirts and high heels, trying to achieve a generational identiﬁcation. Another idea was to remove the music stands and play music by heart to create a complicity between the audience and the musicians. Many people do not realize the effort of playing by heart and not many musicians do it, but, in some way, the audience assimilates it and is grateful for it.
Our Chamber Music Ensemble is constantly being renewed and has broadened its spectrum looking for the symphonic sound that I want. I do not discard the possibility of soon creating a symphony orchestra since we have sufﬁcient wind instrument players. The presence of women has grown in music.
I can also see the inﬂuence of the Ensembles image in other groups when I see their female members using skirts and high heels, something unthinkable in conceit music.
My Encounterwith Michel Legrand
It was Manuel Duchesne Cuzan, conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, who gave me that opportunity in I989. l-Ie had to travel to Bulgaria and told me about Legrand‘s next visit to Cuba, Legrand had already performed concerts in Paris for the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
“You are going to get everything ready,” he told me. When I had the music score I realized there were two piano players. One of them was the famous French composer and . .. who was the other one? And who was going to conduct the orchestra? I realized I was the one to conduct it and started working hard.
When Legrand arrived and saw that the choral conductor was a woman, Digna Guerra, Cuban National Choir director, he was amazed. But he was truly amazed when he saw that I, at the time very young and with short hair, was to direct the orchestra.
He demanded a three session work structure, really tough. We only needed the ﬁrst day of work for him to tell me that one session was enough.
After that big concert, considered by many critics of the time to be a signiﬁcant cultural event in the Americas, people expected much more.
We wanted to do more but we failed to ﬁnd ﬁnancing. We had planned to play in Saint Petersburg, Russia, With a spectacular arrangement of lights like the ones used at the time by Jean Michel Jarre but we had to cancel after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
He called me this year and told me about doing something in France. I have maintained my ties with Legrand and we might get together again someday.
Baton in Hand
Orchestra conduction is hard. The job is like delivering a lesson, it is something open to changes. In the academy you are told how to visually show what you think. Make a physical model of an abstract image. But you are not told about the live structure of a concert, which is very random sometimes.
I am a very demanding Woman but I am also human, involved in the problems of all my musicians. That is something that you are never taught at the academy. The orchestra conductor has to be a counselor, a priest, and in my case a mother, nurse, psychologist, administrator, publicist, and stylist.
I prefer the baton because it saves you movements. It is something like an extension of your arm. You can do a minor gesture with a very clear visual precision.
Of course, there are differences when conducting choral or symphonic music. The movements of the hands are similar but there are some speciﬁcs. Language is visual and silent. It carries all the organizational and expressive aspects of the music.
Nevertheless, in orchestra conducting one hand organizes and the other expresses. While conducting a choir both hands are used indistinctively, with techniques for the consonants since there are precise techniques for breathing and voice placement.
Those who listen to the Ensemble, hear an orchestra because we play strong, I am always telling my musicians that they have to play like men. I cannot use womanliness to weaken a discourse. lfit were so, I would work in something different.
I know that life ends invariably with death but I would like to have a productive life. For music and for my family. The moment I stop having it, I would rather close my eyes forever.