Spotlight Q&A: MN Orchestra in Cuba

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Minnesota Orchestra in Cuba

Ann Benjamin (Photos: Travis Anderson)


The Minnesota Orchestra made headlines in May as the first major American orchestra to tour Cuba since President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would take steps to normalize relations and lift the U.S. embargo. Among the 100 musicians on the trip was harpist Ann Benjamin, who agreed to share her story with us.

YPP: Tell us about your musical background.

Benjamin: Everyone in my family started piano at age five. We also chose another instrument in fourth or fifth grade. I tried some other stringed instruments, but after hearing Barbara Dewey play harp at my church, the harp was it for me! I studied through high school where Arnold Kruger made sure I had plenty to play as a pianist and harpist and bassist; he taught me bass so I had something else to play when there were no harp parts. At St. Olaf College, I majored in English but continued my harp lessons and orchestral playing. Finally, at Indiana University I earned a Master in Music in Harp. One of very few teaching jobs opened up at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I was chosen for the job and eventually became a tenured Assistant Professor of Harp. I was also involved in recital performances, touring, master classes, CD recordings and summer festivals. Today I teach at Macalester College and give private lessons.

YPP: When did you join the Minnesota Orchestra?

Benjamin: After moving back to Minnesota, I ran into Kathy Kienzle, the orchestra’s principal harpist. She invited me to audition for the second harp position in 2008 and I have been playing with the orchestra since then whenever a second harp is needed or if Kathy is out of town. The repertoire for the Cuba tour included Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet Suite, which requires two harps.

YPP: What did you do in Cuba?

Benjamin: As part of the cultural exchange, orchestra musicians visited either the Havana music high school or the advanced music college. There is only one harp teacher in Cuba and she was at the high school, so that is where Kathy and I met the harpists. Because the one old Russian school harp was broken, we moved to the performance hall and had the students play on the Minnesota Orchestra harps. We had so much to talk about that we went out for lunch and came back for more in the afternoon and every day after that!  When Kathy had to leave for rehearsal, I continued working with the students, trying to fix the “regulation” or mechanics of their instruments to improve tuning.

Since none of the harps that the students were using at their homes were at the hall, it was difficult to see what the issues were. Those instruments were two more old Russian harps and one harp made from two broken harps! One student was fluent in English, so she translated. The other students understood English but spoke very slowly. I demonstrated on one of the orchestra’s harps the basics of harp repair including fixing and adjusting the pedals, rods, discs and strings.

YPP: Is tuning a harp difficult?

Benjamin: Yes — harps are complex instruments! With seven pedals, 47 strings and over 2,000 moving parts, parts often need tweaking and adjusting. Harps don’t age very well; the wooden frame can warp due to the extreme tension on the neck and soundboard. The Cuban harps were over 50 years old and were exposed to a tropical climate and even termites!

On our last day, one student figured out how to get one of their old Russian harps to the hall. This harp was poorly made and had an extremely twisted neck. The discs that change the strings’ pitch weren’t even touching the strings anymore. I made enough adjustments to fix that problem, at least temporarily, and all of us were thrilled!

YPP: How was it working with the students?

Benjamin: I loved how resourceful, inquisitive and creative they were. Because there’s no hardware store to buy simple tools like a screwdriver, people help each other find solutions. The students were very motivated. I’ve kept in contact with them since our visit. One young woman will attend my alma mater, Indiana University, this fall.

The teacher had excellent training and her students had wonderful technique and musicality. They were just a bit behind in the traditional repertoire, mostly from starting the harp later in life and being hampered with inferior instruments. When we had them play on our main orchestra harp, which is an outstanding instrument, the students sounded amazing.

YPP: What about the concerts?

Benjamin: Both performances went fabulously well. When we played the Cuban national anthem, the audience’s reaction was incredible. Everyone started to cry, in part because it was a surprise and they don’t hear it very often. We followed that with the Star Spangled Banner. These anthems, played back to back, really touched people. It was a magical moment – one of those times emotional electricity touches everyone in the concert hall.

(Trivia: Ann Benjamin’s grandfather, Harry Wenger, founded the Wenger Corporation in 1946.)

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