We are not talking about tobacco products here, but a nine-member string ensemble named Camerata Romeu, apparently after the grandfather of its director Zenaida Romeu, which gave a recital entitled “A Century of Classical Cuban Music” (why not “. of Cuban Classical Music,” this reviewer wondered?) in Duke’s Nelson Music Room on the evening of March 20. The person who introduced the group from the stage revealed that as late as March 15, it was uncertain if the performance would even happen, for the group had not yet been authorized to travel to the USA. The visas did come through; the players flew to Miami and drove from there in a van with a trailer for the instruments, first to Tennessee and then to the NCSA in Winston-Salem, to which city they returned for a gig at Wake Forest University after leaving Durham.

The group played 13 of the 14 mostly single-movement works listed on the minimalist printed program, which gave only titles (with their English translations) and composers (and arrangers, when appropriate), and did not even include the performers’ names. Eight of these appear on their latest CD entitled Cuba Mía, for sale on site, whose booklet in Spanish only (a language which this reviewer has never studied) and printed in such a small font that it is impossible to read without a magnifying glass, nonetheless enabled me to supply a few further details here and correct printing errors in the program. Because performers were not listed in the program, we do not know which two of the five violinists listed in the CD booklet did not come along for the tour; there are also two violists, a cellist, a double bassist and a percussionist (was she perhaps one of the violinists?), all women, mostly of African descent.

The opening work, “Final Obligado,” by Carlos Farinas, featured intense, driving rhythms that brought to mind those of Vivaldi in some of his string concerti. This was followed by “La Bella Cubana,” a showpiece featuring the elements of what we think of as Cuban music, by José White, a.k.a. “the black Paganini” in 19th century Paris, according to the oral commentary given by the director, who introduced each work. Next came two pieces by contemporary composer Calixto Álvarez written for the ensemble, the first, “Pregoneros” (“Town Criers”), on a conga rhythm and the second, “Invitación al Són,” on a salsa one. The percussionist came on board for the next piece, “Médico de Piano” (“Piano Physician”) by Jorge López-Marín, inspired by and dedicated to a piano repairman that the composer met in New York City. The work also contained some unison vocal components contributed by the majority of the players.

The balance of the program was devoted primarily to arrangements of songs or works originally composed for other instruments, usually piano. The first of these was “Rosa Roja” by composer and guitarist Oscar Hernandez (1891-1967), originally for guitar and arranged by the director herself. It featured a solo by one of the violists; this instrument was featured in several of the numbers, and its use struck me as interestingly different from our custom of featuring the violin. Is this a subtle commentary about the Cuban soul? The first half of the recital concluded with “Tres Danzas Cubanas,” also arranged by Romeu from the original piano scores, the first two, “Improvisada” and “Cortesana,” by composer, pianist and conductor Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905), and the third, “La Comparsa,” by composer-pianist Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), the most familiar composer on the program, from his Danzas Afro-Cubanas.

After intermission, we first heard “Almendra” (“Almond”) by Abelardo Valdés, arranged by Garciapórrua, followed by “Cuba Mía” by the director’s composer, pianist and pedagogue grandfather, Armando Romeu (1891-1991), arranged from the piano score by contemporary composer Roberto Valera (b.1934), and followed in turn by Romeu’s arrangement of Silvio Rodriguez’ song “Te Amaré.” This work featured another lovely viola solo over the other instruments’ pizzicati. Next came “Momo” by contemporary jazz pianist and composer Ernán López-Nussa (b. 1958), arranged for the Camerata by the composer, and “Cañambú” by Mexican composer Eduardo Gamboa (b. 1960), originally written for string ensemble and sent to them, that featured another nice viola solo. The scheduled portion concluded with “Manisero” (“Peanut Vendor”) by composer, conductor and pianist Moisés Simon (1890-1945), also arranged by Valera, and again featuring some unison singing that resembled street vendors’ calls.

The enthusiastic audience of approximately 80 listeners refused to let them stop there, so they played an unidentified rumba that featured yet another lovely viola solo, and in which all the musicians used their instruments as percussion for an extended time. Acquiescing to a request apparently communicated at intermission by someone in the audience, they gave as a second encore a Sinfonia in C Major by Antonio Vivaldi, proving that they can play the standard repertoire as well as any standard string ensemble, and filling the hall (from which one of the Oriental carpets had mysteriously been removed) with wonderful sound. Yet a third encore, an unidentified tango, was given because the audience simply would not let them slip off the stage.

So was this an evening of classical or world music? The majority of the members of the audience seemed to have come from amongst the area’s world music lovers. A goodly portion of the program was arrangements of songs or piano pieces originally heard in a different context, the dance hall. But the same can be said for the works of Astor Piazzolla, including the “Four Seasons” piano trio arrangement of four of his tangos heard on the Chirusca Trio program at Peace College on the evening of March 18 and recorded by the Eroica Trio. What about some of the music of Darius Milhaud, to name just one composer who incorporated Latin melodies and rhythms into his clearly classical compositions? Many of these composers have also written numerous orchestral, concerto, choral and chamber works, according to the CD liner notes. I guess I’d have to call this classical music with a world connection, transferred from the dance hall to the salon. I’m certainly not going to look down my nose at something that gives so much pleasure to so many! There was more precise and spirited playing here than some that I’ve heard from some big name groups passing through town, and rarely have I encountered one more dedicated to its mission and more determined to perform than Camerata Romeu proved itself to be. Virtually the entire program was played from memory! Their enthusiasm and love for what they were doing shone through at every moment.