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Students from 2 Long Island schools to visit Cuba

Music students from North Shore High School during

Music students from North Shore High School during practice in Glen Head, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Seventy-one students in the band, orchestra and choral ensembles at North Shore High School will board a flight to Cuba next week with violins, saxophones and snare drums in tow as they go on a kind of mission to the island nation.

The group will visit cultural sites and perform, becoming among the first student groups to take advantage of improved relations between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years of Cold War tensions.

In a way, the students will do some diplomacy of their own.

They will play and sing pieces rooted in Americana — from a bombastic John Philip Sousa march, to a harmonized choral arrangement of an American Spiritual, to a string rendition of a Leroy Anderson concert piece. They will appear at a Havana concert hall and high school, a cathedral in Cienfuegos and a theater in Santa Clara.

Cuban students and other artists are expected to respond in a kind of musical dialogue with performances.

“I think that music can influence everyone, because music is a universal language that everyone is able to understand,” said Hanah Leventhal, 14, a 9th-grader who plays the cello and sings in the choir.

She and other students have marveled at photos of vintage American cars roaming Havana streets and they have seen the colonial architecture and the vistas of wide open sky.

“We will be experiencing the raw culture of a place that hasn’t been touched by many people,” she said.

The North Shore group, bound for a week-long visit from Feb. 12 to Feb. 19, will be one of two Long Island high schools visiting during winter break.

Another 25 high school students and four chaperones from Pierson High School in Sag Harbor will embark on their journey to Cuba on Feb. 11, starting in Miami and returning on the 20th. The itinerary includes visiting an orchid farm, attending a cooking class and musical performances. The group also expects to visit a local school and museums.

They will see the island before visits from American tourists become common.

“The thing that jumps out at me about it is it seems from the people we know who have been to Cuba — there is going to be tremendous change very quickly, this is an extraordinary moment to capture,” said art teacher Peter Solow, who organized the Sag Harbor trip along with Spanish teacher Toby Marienfeld.

Both trips will cost in excess of $3,500 per student. Parents were largely covering the fare for North Shore students. Some costs have been defrayed in Sag Harbor by donations from The Donald Reutershan Educational Trust.

At North Shore High School, the visit was timed as a celebration of the 10th-anniversary of its music travel program.

“We try to provide opportunities for our students to grow culturally, not by going to the usual places, but to cities where they can learn something new,” said David Soto, longtime director of the high school’s bands.

The North Shore students — joined by about 10 teachers and staff — will take small gifts for high schoolers in Cuba, including musical supplies like reeds and strings.

In the process they will get a taste of life away from the niceties of suburban American life, school officials said.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to what is the last frontier in the western hemisphere, a true cultural frontier,” said Michael Kleba, North Shore High’s theater director.

President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro restored diplomatic relations between the two nations in 2014. The deal included an expansion of travel from the United States. to Cuba, allowing family visits, official business trips, educational activities and public performances.

Ben Saltzman, 17, a North Shore senior and trumpet player, has his personal goals for the trip, besides the performances.

“I want to see a non-polluted beautiful beach,” Saltzman said. “I want to see what life is like without being connected to cellphone services like twenty-four seven.”


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