Mikowsky’s Return to Cuba

Solomon Mikowsky is a legendary professor of music, presently teaching at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. He is widely recognized as one of the greatest piano teachers in the world. He is originally from Cuba, and he still feels Cuban; he supports and defends Cuba.

This year, professor Mikowsky (born in 1936) brought to Havana some of the greatest names in classical music. These include his former students, Yuan Sheng (China), Alexander Moutouzkine (Russia), Simone Dinnerstein (United States), and Wael Farouk (Egypt), as well as the many younger ones, his present-day students.

Under a surprisingly modest heading, “Encounter of Young Pianists”, musicians and the general public of Havana are now having a unique chance, between May 25 and June 9, 2013, to enjoy performances by some the world’s best concert pianists in the splendid surroundings of the Basilica Menor, of the San Francisco de Asis Convent, in the center of old Havana.

I spent several evenings with Professor Mikowsky. And it is not only music that we discussed, but also socialism, revolution, education and Western imperialism.

Solomon Gadles Mikowsky in Havana

Culture and arts… They appear to be constantly shaping this city, the entire country, and the Cuban psyche. They are part of the everyday life of the people. Havana is all about culture: its architecture, history and music are all alive, literally lining every street of the city; they can be seen, felt and heard at every corner. Music blares out from the open doors of historic bars. There are countless concert halls, theatres… The city is always vibrant, day and night. There is hardly any ‘junk’ here, almost no cheap ‘pop’. Even contemporary music is of a very high quality.

“I have not lived here for so many years”, says Professor Mieklowsky. “But every time I come here, I am amazed. The amount of concerts, lectures, presentations… It is such a cultured and educated country!”

“In terms of music, they have everything here: even baroque and pre-baroque… There is so little of it in the United States; you have to go to Europe to encounter similar quality and quantity of historic music, as they have in Cuba. In the US, you can find something like this only in places like Harvard or Yale.”

Solomon is very proud of how the festival was arranged, how sophisticated it is, how full of information it is for Cuban public.

But it is not just the festival, of course!

“Cuba with its lack of resources… You would think that Cubans would not be aware of what is happening in Europe, in North America, Asia, rest of the world… But they know; they follow everything, all the important trends and events. What is happening here is amazing, and it is not designed to ‘please the audience’, it is designed to educate, to make people what they are now.”

We speak about Cuba’s position in the world. Solomon says that Havana is to Latin America, what Athens was to Europe, in ancient times. It is respected and admired all over Central and South America, as the center of learning, and arts.

But how is this determined and proud country managing to create masterpieces, to understand the world, with such limited resources?

Solomon is passionate about this topic:

“There are priorities! Culture, education, arts – all those are great priorities in Cuba. Look at the number of the theatres, museums, concert halls here, look at even the number of Steinway grand pianos in Havana! In the West, particularly in the United States, most of the people, even the students, are deprived of real education. There is a vicious circle: the government is constantly talking about cutting taxes… and then the people demand tax cuts. But free and great education is paid for from taxes, and so is the great, non-commercial culture. Look at China: now they are building opera houses, concert halls, schools… they are building them all over the country! It is very similar to what is happening here.”

The Cuba of Solomon’s childhood, is very different from Cuba that we all know now.

“I left this island when I was only 18 years old… Before, I was based in Havana, so I can’t tell you how things were in the countryside… But what I know is that there used to be so much racism and under-development: a black boy approaching me then would not even know how to talk, forget about reading and writing. Chances were that he would be barefoot… Then once, after I came back, after the revolution, they placed a very young black man at my table and we talked and talked and he was so articulate and he was so clever; he spoke so well and he spoke about the future. Everything changed!”

To both Solomon and I, much of Cuba’s success is connected to education.

We discuss Cuban doctors, some of the greatest in the world. I tell him that I met them in all the corners of the globe: in Kiribati and South Africa, and in Chile right after the devastating earthquake.

He agrees: “Hospitals are now all over Cuba. Before you could find them only in Havana, maybe in Santiago. Now great doctors are working in all neighborhoods… real family doctors. And Cuba is the home to a great international medical school, which is totally free. You see, the US is sponsoring corruption, all over the world… Cuba can’t send money abroad, and so it is sending doctors.”

Back to the United States, back to New York.

Solomon’s face becomes pensive, almost melancholic.

“At Manhattan School of Music… I often open the window and ask my students: ‘What do you see?’ Some describe people walking… I have a very talented young man who likes to speak about the buildings, about architecture… and then the discussion leads to philosophy and to arts. This is what I teach them… And this is what Cuba tries to achieve through its education: for people to think, to appreciate arts, to think about the world…”

“In the US, there is so much racism… and students often get no support… they are not taught how to work hard. I recently had a girl attempting to enter the school… 16 years old, an African-American girl, very talented… but she was deprived… Not well prepared… It was clear she would never make it. At the end she was not accepted. It was so sad!”

Then the legendary professor becomes passionate again, almost angry:

“How come I teach in New York, and for years I don’t have one single North American student? It is ridiculous! I came from Cuba to New York, I teach in one of the best schools in the world! But now, if not for China, our school, as well as Julliard, would have to close down!”

“Why China?” I ask him, although we both know the answer.

“Because of discipline, determination and talent”, he replies immediately.

“Most of great students come from China… and also from Korea. Some are extremely talented… In China, talented students are nurtured by the state, by the education system. They come to me: they are skilled, determined, and ready to grow… In the US they keep talking about freedom… But what is hiding behind those slogans of freedom, so often: is a lack of education, an unwillingness to work hard…”

“Solomon”, I say, before we both return to the Basilica, this time to hear his young and talented Chinese student Ruiqi Fang, who flew from Beijing for two days each way, just to play here Bach, Schubert, Albeniz and Schumann. “How do you see Cuba, politically?”

“Yesterday the US described Cuba as a terrorist state, again”, he replied. “This is of course the only excuse they have, for torturing this country… But just think about it: as we speak, a man walks around somewhere in Miami… he walks and he eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner… he lives a normal life… this is the man responsible for blowing up a Cuban passenger airliner out of the sky, killing 76 people. Cuba is not a terrorist country; the terrorist country is the United States. We all know it!”

 Mikowsky and trio of great pianists, his students in Havana: Simone Dinnerstein USA, Khowoon Kim South Korea, Yuan Sheng China.


Mikowsky and trio of great pianists, his students in Havana: Simone Dinnerstein USA, Khowoon Kim South Korea, Yuan Sheng China.

André Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker, and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His critically acclaimed political revolutionary novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalism is called Indonesia: The Archipelago of Fear. He just completed a feature documentary Rwanda Gambit about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website. Read other articles by Andre.