What it means to be an American


It took some Cubans — the kind from Havana — to make me think about what it means to be an American. And to remind me what a gift it is.

The occasion was a concert at the spectacular New World Center on Miami Beach by the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, a virtuoso group of young musicians conducted by the charismatic Jose Antonio Mendez Padron. The brilliant American pianist Simone Dinnerstein was the featured soloist in a program that included two Mozart piano concertos, four delightful sketches by Jorge Mejia (New World School of the Arts grad) and Aaron Copland. They played his quintessentially American classic (itals) Appalachian Spring.

The Copland piece has long been a favorite of mine for its unfettered American optimism and soaring melodies, at the center of which is an old Shaker song, “Simple Gifts.” It is one of those songs that, once heard, sticks in your head and heart. The lyrics are unfussy and profound:

‘Tis the gift to be simple

‘Tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

And when we find ourselves in the place just right

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Til by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.

I thought of the lyrics as the musicians of the Lyceum Orchestra bent to their bows, blew into their horns and woodwinds, beat the kettle drum and played Copland's music with deep skill and understanding.

They showed with their playing that they understood not just Copland, but also some basic truths about America. The flute in “Appalachian Spring”— played by Karla Lopez Mena in this instance — takes the leading role in interpreting Copland’s beautiful variations on “Simple Gifts.”

Her playing and that of the entire orchestra was breathtaking. Especially so because these were musicians from Havana playing before an audience that included many family members and friends of Cuban heritage who live in a city reviled for decades by the Castros as the home of “the Miami mafia”— a city of exiles who fled Castroism and embraced American democracy.

And here were 43 Cuban musicians embracing this deeply American piece of music and doing it con alma. It was their tribute to the country that was hosting them and, indeed, to the community where they were playing. We were all caught up in the thrall of the music and the moment. Ms. Lopez Mena, as she took her bows, had tears rolling down her cheeks. So did a lot of us.

On this Independence Day, I am still thinking about this once-in-a-lifetime concert and the simple gifts it gave us. Healing. Humanity. Commonality. And, oh, those lyrics, which are a balm in a time of such deep division.

Not since the Vietnam War have I seen our country so divided and discontent and with so little prospect for peace and unity behind our shared American values. But this concert showed me that we can, with good will, kindness and principled compromise, find ways to bridge our divisions and come together. It will be hard, but I’m confident we can do it. Yes, we are turning, turning, but we will “come ‘round right.”