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First to Play in Cuba Since the Revolution

Left: Jessie Montgomery, Paul Laraia, Karla Donehew Perez, Karlos Rodriguez
From left: Paul Laraia, viola; Karlos Rodriguez, cello; Jessie Montgomery, violin; and Karla Donehew Perez, violin. Photo courtesy of Catalyst Quartet.

From left: Paul Laraia, viola; Karlos Rodriguez, cello; Jessie Montgomery, violin; and Karla Donehew Perez, violin. Photo courtesy of Catalyst Quartet.

The Catalyst Quartet became the first string quartet to perform in Cuba in a breakthrough musical exchange earlier this month that took place in the cities of Havana and Matanzas. It’s a clear sign of the thawing musical relations between Cuba and the U.S. after decades of strict political separation that created very different approaches to music making in each country.

Cuba has had its small share of musical exchanges through organized trips and concerts by artists from the United States. But as far as American string quartets go, none have ever performed on the island until now.

For quartet cellist Karlos Rodriguez, it was an incredible opportunity on both a professional and personal level.

“I’m a first generation Cuban,” he says. “When I went to Cuba for the first time in May 2018, it was an emotional trip for me. I also knew a friend who went to Cuba with the Minnesota Orchestra to do an exchange there, which was what inspired me to have my group become the first American string quartet to visit Cuba.”

Catalyst Quartet poses with music students in Cuba.

Catalyst Quartet with music students in Cuba. Photo courtesy of Catalyst Quartet.

With support from the Cuban American Youth Orchestra and Sphinx Organization, Rodriguez was able to help turn the quartet’s Cuba trip into a reality. The five-day residency involved a rich mix of activities including one-on-one lessons, masterclasses, and performances hosted by the quartet, which featured pieces by Latinx classical composers.

“We had an inspired time working with students and young professionals from both Havana and Matanzas,” Rodriguez says. “The string playing and chamber music making is on an internationally high level as well as exhibiting a special style. We also had the opportunity to meet exciting composers writing fantastic new music which we hope to play in the future.”

Furthermore, Rodriguez was pleasantly surprised by the differences in musical practice in Cuba, noting their unique approach to sound and phrasing, especially with their vibrato techniques. Such contrasts made the mixing of musical ideas during the exchange enriching for the quartet members.


The Catalyst Quartet is immensely proud to have pioneered a bridge connecting the music community in the states to the streets of Havana, Cuba. Their work in Cuba is only the latest addition to their impressive resumé: the quartet has performed in renowned concert venues around the world, collaborated with acclaimed artists, and manage a YouTube channel that has reached thousand of viewers.

For the group, the trip created some strong and fond memories. They are still in contact with the Cubans they worked with and intend to spread the word about what is happening musically in Cuba.

“There is a tremendous amount of well deserved support that is needed on the island in the form of mentorship, instrument maintenance, and access to creative inclusion off the island,” Rodriguez says.” With so much shared and experienced on both sides of this exchange, we eagerly look forward to a return.”

For upcoming performances of the Catalyst Quartet, click here.
Instagram: @catalystquartet
Vivian Wang

Vivian is a travel enthusiast and food connoisseur living in New York City. Her curiosity and passion for languages and culture has taken her across eight countries over the past year. When not working, you can find her meandering in art museums or sampling food at the street markets.

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1 Comment

  1. Jonathan Hicks February 20, 2019

    This quartet is not the first to play in Cuba. In January 2017, Houston string quartet, Apollo Chamber Players, became the first American chamber music ensemble to perform and record in Cuba. Coordinated by Parma Recordings and the Ministry of Culture of Cuba, Apollo’s eight-day trip allowed them the opportunity to present a public concert and outreach programs, appear on Cuba TV, collaborate with acclaimed Cuban musicians, and record at Abdala Studios in Havana.




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