New York Philharmonic looks at possible Cuba tour

HAVANA, July 11 Sat Jul 11, 2009 9:32pm EDT

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HAVANA, July 11 (Reuters) - The head of the New York Philharmonic met with Cuban officials and toured facilities in Havana on Saturday ahead of a possible visit to the communist-led island by the orchestra later this year.

Orchestra president Zarin Mehta told Reuters he was encouraged by what he saw and heard on the island and noted that Cubans appeared to appreciate classical music. But he said a final decision on the proposed concert trip still lay ahead.

"It has to be done soon. We have to go and work very hard with our board (of directors). We have to raise money, we have to arrange transportation," Mehta said.

The orchestra, a pillar of U.S. high culture, was attacked in 2008 when it made a concert trip to North Korea, and Mehta said he was certain it would be criticized by opponents of the Cuban government if it performed on the island.

He added that Cuban and U.S. officials have said they favor the visit, which could occur at the end of October and would come at a time when long-bitter U.S.-Cuba relations may be improving.

The United States and Cuba have been at odds since Fidel Castro took control of the island 90 miles (145 km) south of Florida 50 years ago in a revolution against a U.S.-backed dictator.

Washington has imposed a trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba since 1962, but President Barack Obama has eased it and said it could be lifted if Cuba improves its human rights record.

Mehta said orchestra officials contacted Cuba about a possible trip and eventually received an invitation from its government.

They also got the blessing of officials in Washington who support normalizing relations with Cuba. If the Philharmonic decides to go to Cuba, its members will have to get a license from the U.S. government.

While noting that the Philharmonic was a good ambassador, Mehta downplayed the political implications of a tour.

"We don't do any kind of political statements, but the fact that we as Americans come and play in a particular country has to make those people smile on the United States," Mehta said.

"We just come and play music and then let the politicians and governments work out what they can."

His visit coincided with the arrival in Havana of Britain's Royal Ballet. Officials said the London-based company would perform five days of sold-out performances in the its first visit to Cuba. (Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Paul Simao)

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