By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: October 27, 2010
The New York Philharmonic canceled a trip to Havana last year because
the United States government refused to allow its wealthy patrons to go
along, saying they would essentially be tourists. That violates
sanctions banning most travel to Cuba.
So the Philharmonic quietly resubmitted its application, this time
adding a children's concert and Kidzone beforehand and stating that the
patrons would be involved in the activities, officials at the orchestra
and in Washington said in recent interviews.
The latest application was submitted in July, but the Treasury
Department — which issues licenses for travel to Cuba with guidance from
the State Department — has taken no action. The Philharmonic had hoped
to go in early February, when it has a hole in its schedule.
But Zarin Mehta, the orchestra's president and executive director, said
that with only several months to plan, a February visit appears
unlikely. He expressed some frustration with the delay. In September the
orchestra had to cancel a trip to the Republic of Georgia as part of its
current European tour when the Georgian government withdrew the invitation.
"It is close to the wire," Mr. Mehta said last week, just before the
orchestra left on the tour. "I have a feeling February is not going to
happen because I don't think we'll get the approval from Washington in
A senior Obama administration official said that — as opposed to the
original request — the new application was "more compliant" with
licensing rules, which allow Americans to visit Cuba for cultural and
educational reasons. "We are trying to be supportive," said the official
— who lacked authorization to speak publicly and so commented on
condition of anonymity — "because the performance is consistent with our
broader strategy of increasing people-to-people exchanges with Cuba. But
it is not a done deal."
The administration wants to increase opportunities for Americans to
travel to Cuba as a way of encouraging contact among people in the two
countries while stopping short of ending the long embargo.
While the Philharmonic has sought to visit Cuba for more than a year, it
is now falling behind other New York cultural institutions making their
way there. American Ballet Theater and a contingent of dancers from the
New York City Ballet are appearing at the International Ballet Festival
of Havana, which starts this week. Jazz at Lincoln Center sent its
in-house orchestra this month. The Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz
Orchestra will visit in December.
The Philharmonic insisted that it bring its patrons, who would pay for
the orchestra's visit. Mr. Mehta said orchestra officials asked
themselves how the patrons could fit within Treasury Department
guidelines for who may travel to Cuba. "We said: 'Well, education. We
need people to run the Kidzone,' " he recounted.
The Kidzone, which would be outdoors, would have stations to try out
instruments and compose music, among other activities. Mr. Mehta said
the patrons would help with seating, maintain lines at the education
stations, write on whiteboards and serve as hosts. "The people who go on
this trip will have a crash course in what's going to happen," he said.
"It's not very difficult."
The proposal creates the prospect of the orchestra's well-heeled
supporters, more used to Wall Street offices and Park Avenue co-ops,
holding little Cuban hands and shepherding children about. Philharmonic
officials said about 100 patrons would go along, as part of a 285-member
"It's crowd control, being pleasant, encouragement," Mr. Mehta said.
"It's really representing the New York Philharmonic."
The orchestra has received some support in Washington for the Cuba
excursion. Senator Byron L. Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who has
helped introduce a bill to lift the travel ban on Cuba, spoke on the
Senate floor in late September in favor of the trip. He noted that the
Philharmonic had traveled to other sensitive spots in recent years and
to the Soviet Union during the cold war.
"This makes no sense to me, to decide that the way we are going to
conduct diplomacy is to prevent our Philharmonic orchestra from playing
in Havana, Cuba, given the fact they have played in the capital of North
Korea, in Russia, in Vietnam and more," he said.
In an interview Senator Dorgan said he had spoken to the secretary of
state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the treasury secretary, Timothy F.
Geithner, within the past six weeks, and both were "generally positive"
about the Philharmonic's request.
"Deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy the application has not yet been
approved," Senator Dorgan said. "I have been repeatedly on the phone
pushing and also frustrated that it has not yet been done. I don't know
what has been holding it up."
Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington.