The San Francisco Girls Chorus, comprised of Bay Area women ages 12 to 17, will embark Saturday on an eight-day trip to the island nation to give four concerts in various cities and attend three masters classes with renowned Cuban choral conductors.
The 40-member ensemble is probably best known for its classical performances, including a collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony on Mahler's Eighth Symphony that earned the chorus its fourth and fifth Grammy Awards, but the girls are looking forward to performing Latin-infused pieces and traditional American spirituals, chorus director Melanie Smith said.
"We had been hoping to do a Latin American tour for a couple of years," Smith said. "It's a great opportunity for our girls to have a musical exchange with another culture."
The young women will give concerts in Havana, Santa Clara and Matanzas, and will sing at the Fourth of July celebration at the Swiss Embassy's United States Special Interest Section, which is staffed by Americans. The U.S. and Cuba have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1961.
The chorus will also do a master class with Maestra Digna Guerra -- conductor of Cuba's national choir, the Coro Nacional de Cuba -- and will perform a specially commissioned piece by Cuban-American composer Tania Leon that premiered during the San Francisco Girls Chorus' season-finale concerts on June 9 and 11.
Josephine Cormier, 15, has studied voice with the San Francisco Girls Chorus for five years and said she is excited to visit Cuba to learn about its history and music.
She said she loves the complexity and groove of Cuban music and is excited to hear it live from the choirs who will perform for the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
"No matter how hard the music is, I always find myself feeling the beat and moving with the rhythm because the groove is so catchy," she said.
For example, the alto section does a five-stroke claves rhythm throughout one of the Tania Leon movements, Josephine said. The beat originated in sub-Saharan African music and serves as the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythms.
The girls chorus will do cultural exchanges with other choirs and even take a Cuban dance class.
"Everyone always raves about the amazing Cuban choirs and the way they sing from their souls," Josephine said. "It will be great just to meet them and try to take some of their sound and soul home with us."
Josephine said she's also looking forward to learning more about Cuban history and understanding the other side's perspective on the enmity between the U.S. and Cuba.
She's also hoping to bond with her new acquaintances over a passion shared by both Cubans and San Franciscans: baseball.
"I have heard Cubans love baseball, and so do I," she said. "I am hoping even though I don't speak Spanish that I can find some way to enthuse about baseball with the people we meet."
Most of the girls are paying their own way during the trip, but the chorus would never leave anybody behind for financial reasons, director Smith said.
She said the chorus raised about $30,000 for tour scholarships through individual private donations.
Many of the ensemble's members go on to be professional musicians, and even the ones who don't are successful in other fields, Smith said.
"They report back to us that music continues to be an important part of their lives even if they don't make a living off it," she said.
The girls chorus will perform a free public concert tonight to celebrate their Cuba sendoff. The concert will begin at 8 p.m. at the Calvary Presbyterian Church, located at 2515 Fillmore St. in San Francisco.