Morgan State choir, Cuban ensemble find common ground

There's a language barrier, but music unites Baltimore, Cuban choirs.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ariana Rodriguez, a soprano from Cuba, became so overwhelmed with emotion during a solo that she took off her eyeglasses and threw them to Morgan State University's choir room floor.

Less than 30 minutes later, the vocalist — visiting Baltimore for the day with the award-winning Havana-based choir Coro Entrevoces — barely remembered the moment.

"When I sing, I can't think," Rodriguez said after the performance. "I just feel."

The universal power of music she spoke of acted as the unifying thread between the renowned Cuban choir and the Morgan State University Choir, who met for the first time Wednesday.

Arranged by the Alexandria, Va.,-based tour management company Classical Movements, the two groups took turns performing three pieces each, all while recording the other's performances on their smartphones, offering standing ovations and eating pizza together afterward.

Such a meeting would have been difficult before President Barack Obama's pledge in December to improve relations between the United States and Cuba. Since then, he has met with Cuban President Raul Castro and removed the country from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

"Unfortunately, because of political positions, Americans have been deprived of Cuban culture and Cubans have been deprived of American culture," said Morgan State choir director Eric Conway.

Wednesday's exchange — in English and Spanish —centered on music.

Neither choir was at full strength. Normally a 54-person group, Coro Entrevoces was down to seven male vocalists and nine women, whose wide-ranging set included "El Manisero," Rene Clausen's "Prayer" and the spiritual "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me."

Most of Morgan State's choir, regularly 120 people, was out of town for the summer. The 11 men and eight women who performed Wednesday came after receiving emails from Conway. With little time to rehearse, Conway chose two spirituals ("I've Just Come From the Fountain" and "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord") and a gospel piece, "Even Me."

Eboneé Knight, a singer who just completed her freshman year at Morgan State, was happy to be there.

"Just listening to them, I was in awe," said Knight, who captured their performances on her phone. "I had no clue what they were saying, but just listening to it and connecting with them made it so cool."

After pizza, Conway gave Coro Entrevoces parting gifts like bright orange Morgan State polo shirts and wristbands. A Morgan State singer showed off dance moves to smiles and applause from the visitors.

Digna Guerra, the Coro Entrevoces' conductor, who founded the choir in 1981, said the meeting of two groups like this could improve relations between countries "probably more than the political people."

"Musical enrichment for both sides then opens doors for everything. The artists are the ambassadors for the culture," Guerra said through tour manager and interpreter Laura Quiroga. "No matter what language you talk, through the art, we can understand each other."

Coro Entrevoces' tour has included stops at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.; New York City; Bethlehem, Pa.; Baltimore; and, next, the fifth annual five-day Serenade! Washington D.C. Choral Festival.

Conway and his singers recently returned from Argentina, and a month earlier, they performed at the White House. He said he plans to take his ensemble to Cuba next year.

"Now since all things to impede travel have been removed, I believe that this is the time for us," Conway said.

"We've sung all over the world, and to be honest, we're looking for destinations where we've never touched," he said. "We want to share our music with cultures that have never heard our voices before."

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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