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October 2010
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Philharmonic Renews Effort to Visit Cuba
Published: October 27, 2010

The New York Philharmonic canceled a trip to Havana last year because the United States government refused to allow its wealthy patrons to go along, saying they would essentially be tourists. That violates sanctions banning most to Cuba.

So the Philharmonic quietly resubmitted its application, this time adding a children’s concert and Kidzone beforehand and stating that the patrons would be involved in the activities, officials at the orchestra and in Washington said in recent interviews.

The latest application was submitted in July, but the Treasury Department — which issues licenses for travel to Cuba with guidance from the State Department — has taken no action. The Philharmonic had hoped to go in early February, when it has a hole in its schedule.

But Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s and executive director, said that with only several months to plan, a February visit appears unlikely. He expressed some frustration with the delay. In September the orchestra had to cancel a trip to the Republic of Georgia as part of its current European tour when the Georgian government withdrew the invitation.

“It is close to the wire,” Mr. Mehta said last week, just before the orchestra left on the tour. “I have a feeling February is not going to happen because I don’t think we’ll get the approval from Washington in time.”

A senior Obama administration official said that — as opposed to the original request — the new application was “more compliant” with licensing rules, which allow Americans to visit Cuba for cultural and educational reasons. “We are trying to be supportive,” said the official — who lacked authorization to speak publicly and so commented on condition of anonymity — “because the performance is consistent with our broader strategy of increasing people-to-people exchanges with Cuba. But it is not a done deal.”

The administration wants to increase opportunities for Americans to travel to Cuba as a way of encouraging contact among people in the two countries while stopping short of ending the long .

While the Philharmonic has sought to visit Cuba for more than a year, it is now falling behind other New York cultural institutions making their way there. American Ballet Theater and a contingent of dancers from the New York City Ballet are appearing at the International Ballet Festival of Havana, which starts this week. Jazz at Lincoln Center sent its in-house orchestra this month. The Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra will visit in December.

The Philharmonic insisted that it bring its patrons, who would pay for the orchestra’s visit. Mr. Mehta said orchestra officials asked themselves how the patrons could fit within Treasury Department guidelines for who may travel to Cuba. “We said: ‘Well, . We need people to run the Kidzone,’ ” he recounted.

The Kidzone, which would be outdoors, would have stations to try out instruments and compose music, among other activities. Mr. Mehta said the patrons would help with seating, maintain lines at the education stations, write on whiteboards and serve as hosts. “The people who go on this trip will have a crash course in what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s not very difficult.”

The proposal creates the prospect of the orchestra’s well-heeled supporters, more used to Wall Street offices and Park Avenue co-ops, holding little Cuban hands and shepherding children about. Philharmonic officials said about 100 patrons would go along, as part of a 285-member contingent.

“It’s crowd control, being pleasant, encouragement,” Mr. Mehta said. “It’s really representing the New York Philharmonic.”

The orchestra has received some support in Washington for the Cuba excursion. Senator Byron L. Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who has helped introduce a bill to lift the travel ban on Cuba, spoke on the Senate floor in late September in favor of the trip. He noted that the Philharmonic had traveled to other sensitive spots in recent years and to the Soviet Union during the cold war.

“This makes no sense to me, to decide that the way we are going to conduct diplomacy is to prevent our Philharmonic orchestra from playing in Havana, Cuba, given the fact they have played in the capital of North Korea, in Russia, in and more,” he said.

In an interview Senator Dorgan said he had spoken to the secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, within the past six weeks, and both were “generally positive” about the Philharmonic’s request.

“Deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy the application has not yet been approved,” Senator Dorgan said. “I have been repeatedly on the phone pushing and also frustrated that it has not yet been done. I don’t know what has been holding it up.”

Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington.

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