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Two brothers bridge musical genres and the U.S./Cuba divide

Violinist Ilmar Gavilan and his brother pianist/composer Aldo Lopez-Gavilan.
Najib Joe Hakim
Violinist Ilmar Gavilán and his brother pianist/composer Aldo López-Gavilán.

Violinist Ilmar Gavilán and his pianist/composer brother Aldo López-Gavilán grew up as young classical music prodigies in Havana, Cuba. Ilmar was sent to the former Soviet Union at the age of 14 to continue his violin studies, and he eventually settled in New York City, where he founded the Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. His brother Aldo remained on the island.

The 2021 documentary film “Los Hermanos” tells the story of their years apart amid strained U.S.-Cuba relations and their reunion to perform together again.

As part of our series “Classical Music: Moving Toward Inclusion,” Ilmar Gavilán spoke with Connecticut Public Radio’s Diane Orson. Here are highlights from their conversation.

On classical music’s diversity problem

Gavilán: I am proud of the industry in general for recognizing this issue and seeking composers [and performers of color]. There is also an issue of being represented not only by the color of the composer, but the type of music that composer writes. There is something to be said about attracting an audience that commonly doesn’t go to the concert venues, [and] bringing music that relates to their background. And I’m not trying to be simplistic and say we have to always play jazz for African Americans or salsa music, Latin music for Hispanics. No. That’s very simplistic.

But what I mean is that the music that we hold dear is based on European folklore. All of the masters were true to themselves. They wrote based on songs they heard when they were little, dances of their native countries. And I feel that anything that has to do with the Pan-African diaspora is not represented musically. It’s represented in the pop world, but in the classical world, it’s very rare.

On programming inclusive classical music concerts

Gavilán: We always think about putting the standard repertoire that is European-based and the American repertoire, with plenty of influences from all the demographics of America, we try to put them back-to-back in the same concerts -- giving a clear message that more jazz-infused music is not the encore. It’s not the “frosting of the cake.” But it’s an integral part of programming.

On the documentary film ‘Los Hermanos’

Gavilán: The message that I get is that love of family and the universal character of music transcends any geopolitical or momentary difficulties. That in the end it prevails. Because music is a universal language for real. Thanks to that beautiful gift our parents gave us, we’re able to not only play music together, but play [Aldo’s] music. It’s the closest thing to his soul and my soul that we can ever share.

Los Hermanos airs Wednesday, Jan. 26, at 10 p.m. on CPTV Spirit.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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