Prodigious Hands on Strings: An Interview with Cuban Violist Anolan González

Helson Hernandez

Anolan González

HAVANA TIMES — Anolan Gonzalez is a Cuban concert performer who has had the kind of rewarding experiences outside of Cuba that are a privilege for most instrumentalists on the island. “Cuban artists lead an endless battle against noise,” Gonzalez said during her interview for Havana Times.

HT: How long have you been playing the viola for?

Anolan González: For 30 years, since I began my viola lessons at the Vocational Arts School, in the province of Matanzas, when I was 7.

HT: Do you have any interesting story about why you chose this particular instrument? 

AG: The story is that the viola chose me. I showed up for the school’s aptitude test, to play the piano. This was the instrument I had played most at the cultural center in the town of Marti, where I spent part of my childhood.

I didn’t get into the piano program because I didn’t pass one of the tests, which was managing to relax one’s arms completely. I was only six years old. The interesting thing is that I was able to do this in front of my mother, but not in front of the people testing me.

Luckily, I was taken to do the aptitude test at the string instrument faculty. In no time, according to my mother, she came down the stairs of the school, carrying me on her shoulders, with a huge smile on her face, saying something no one in my family will ever forget: “She might not become a pianist, but she could well become a great violist.”

HT: What words would you use to describe your instrument?

AG: Prolongation, feeling, emotion, life, soul.

Anolan González

HT: Tell us about Cuba’s National Symphonic Orchestra. 

AG: It was a great opportunity given me by my teacher at the time, in acknowledgement of my skills, at a time when I was just a teenager. Even though I was at the viola music stand furthest from the audience, I felt as though I was at the front of the stage, next to the conductor.

I only played with the orchestra two years, until I completed my high school education at Havana’s National School for the Arts. The years I spent there, next to so many music professionals, helped me grow as an artist and to understand what the professional world of music would be like.

HT: Cuba’s renowned Camerata Romeu was your first big break.

AG: Yes, it was my first real experience with a professional orchestra. The conductor, Zenaida Castro Romeu, invited me to audition for her orchestra before I graduated from school. That’s how I started playing as second violist in the Camerata Romeu.

Shortly afterwards, I became first violist, and I played in this position for nearly 11 years. My experiences there are countless and unforgettable. Playing for this orchestra, I learned that what’s crucial is the tenacity, will power and dedication that you put into what you do. A good teacher I had once told me that “success lies in practice”, and my experiences with the Camerata Romeu proved this insight right.

HT: Your talent put you in contact with a great conductor, Claudio Abbado.

AG: I had the privilege of meeting him during his visit to Cuba in 2003, at a concert staged at Havana’s Amadeo Roldan Theatre by an orchestra of young musicians that I was part of, when we performed Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Wagner’s Prelude & Love.

It’s quite a story. After several rehearsals, he asked to have me moved up to the second viola stand, and, days later, he asked to have a word with me in person. To my surprise, life had rewarded me in a very special way. The maestro personally invited me to join the Gustav Mahler youth orchestra in 2004, to take part in a season of concerts in several European cities.

After this grand experience, I performed with other great orchestras, like Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and Bologna’s Mozart Orchestra, with which I had the honor of performing in their first concerts.

Thanks to his influence, because of an invitation to participate at the Gesualdo Oggi Festival made to him, and from him to myself, I also have the fortune of belonging to the Ars Longa Pre-Classical Music Ensemble. This forced me to learn how to play the viola da gamba, an instrument I was unfamiliar with, which I had to learn in a few months’ time, an instrument I am still slowly unraveling.

HT: Tell us about your experiences performing in Europe.

AG: Maestro Abbado showed me a path I didn’t even know existed, a path that has proven immensely rewarding in terms of my development as a musician and violist. With him, I learned that, at a concert, we are all one, and that it can’t be any other way if you want the result to be brilliant. The teachers who trained us were meticulous, members of important professional orchestras in Europe. The viola maestro belonged to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Silence is of the essence during rehearsals and concerts, and this is something they understand well. That isn’t the case in Cuba. The change of scene was dramatic for me in this sense, because we Cuban artists lead an endless battle against noise, everywhere, to be able to study, and even at concerts.

Anolan González

HT: You have an anecdote about the emotions that this renowned conductor awakens in the members of his orchestra.

AG: Once you begin to understand them, the hands of maestro Abbado take you into a world of deep sensations which, in addition to helping you play, help you live intensely. He has a vast imagination and this is what makes each performance he conducts unique. All of the musicians in the orchestra would leave each concert in ecstasy. He manages not only to have you follow his directions during the concert, but also maintain this state of concentration after the concert.

My experiences with the Mozart Orchestra in Italy were much more intense and fun. There, I was one professional among many. This orchestra is made up of musicians from across Europe. There, I had the fortune of being able to perform at two chamber music concerts with renowned, top-level musicians. Maestro Abbado is the guardian angel sitting on my shoulder, guiding me in each new experience silently.

HT: What concert would you like to play at in the future?

AG: Every day, I dream of all of the pieces I would like to perform. I always plan my solo concerts months ahead of time to find a special reason to perform. I enjoy every concert as a unique experience. All I can say is that I will take on all future concerts with the same spirit. For the time being, I only want to live intensely, enjoy the unique opportunities the present has to offer.