A Chamber of Her Own

The figure wielding the baton is not the usual mature man with wild locks dressed in a fussy tuxedo. Instead a slim woman stands on the stage of the Lyric Theater in a long black gown -- wisps of hair escaping from the chignon at the nape of her neck and tickling her nearly bare back. The precise movements of her hands draw melodies from the white violin of Federico Brito, incite riot from the saxophone of Carlos Averoff, and ignite blue notes from the piano of Lonnie Smith. Marlene Urbay is up to the unexpected once again. Not only is she a rare woman among the fraternity of conductors, but as founder and director of the Florida Chamber Orchestra, she is determined to win a wider audience for classical music in South Florida, by any means necessary. "One day I'll demonstrate that it's possible to interpret the Beatles with a chamber orchestra," Urbay vows. "Nothing is unattainable."

The conductor defected from Cuba in 1991 and began her career from scratch in the rocky musical terrain of Miami. Adapting has meant expanding her repertoire to include as many genres as she thinks will appeal to her adopted community, all arranged as chamber music. "The most marvelous work has always been the symphonies," she contends, "but I am committed to the idea that it is possible to forge Florida's musical identity by fusing the European tradition with Caribbean rhythms and making instrumental music from the melodies that will reach a wide audience."

Urbay chooses her repertoire with Miami's fragmented public in mind. The performance at the Lyric highlighted the confluence of Latin and African-American jazz traditions. In the summer of 2000, the FCO put on a tango show featuring Argentine singer Daniel Bouchet. Not surprising in Miami, the orchestra draws the largest crowds for programs of popular Cuban music that have featured singers Albita Rodriguez, Luis Bofill, and Maggie Carles. Such popularizing has paid off, attracting as many as 2000 people to concerts and leading to a release by Sony of FCO's Memories of Cuba.

Such success is still a far cry from the renown Urbay enjoyed in her homeland, where she had her first post as a professional conductor at the age of eighteen, shortly after completing her degree at the National School of the Arts. In 1982 she became the musical director of the National Ballet of Cuba, a job she held until leaving the island. Not content simply to conduct, Urbay founded the Chamber Orchestra of the Great Theater of Havana. Her growing reputation earned her guest-conducting spots in Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain, and Poland, where in 1987 she won an award at the International G. Fitelherg Competition.

In a certain sense, Urbay had been bred to the baton by her father, conductor José Ramon Urbay, and her mother, who oversaw a library of sheet music for her husband's orchestra. "I had been listening to music since before I could talk: Symphonies, jazz, and the traditional rhythms of Havana inundated our house," she recalls. Urbay learned early the infinite possibilities of her craft. "There is nothing more abstract than music," she observes, "because even though it is written in sheet music, it is conveyed in time, and that makes it relative. The level of the sounds, the emphasis of the instruments, the duration of a fragment, all depend on the conductor. And there is always something new to say about any work."

In 1991 Urbay was invited to conduct the Tokyo Philharmonic, but neither prestige nor the opportunity to travel was enough to make her toe the political line back home in Cuba. She defected while in Spain later that year. While she waited for a decision on her asylum case, she went out only in disguise. One day a man in the street called her name. Urbay was frightened, fearing she would be taken into custody by Cuban officials and repatriated. Instead she met Miguel Garcia, the man she would marry, a fan who had fallen in love with her from the audience in Havana and recognized her despite her costume. Their union would prove propitious.

In Miami Urbay put away her baton and tried to forget she once had been a celebrity. She did not mind returning to school to revalidate her degrees. "Music is infinite," she says stoically, "and a lifetime is not enough to know any more than fragments of its vast reach." Yet she felt exiled in Miami not just from her homeland but from her art. "To put together a performance, to form an orchestra and direct it," she says, "was almost a violent imperative." After completing a master's degree in orchestral conducting at the University of Miami and briefly serving as the associate conductor of the school's symphony orchestra, she gathered the best classical musicians she could find in Florida and founded the FCO in 1995.

Urbay soon learned that conducting an orchestra in the United States requires expertise in much more than music. To cover the cost of a 27-chair ensemble, she had a crash course in marketing, grant writing, and currying sponsorships. She has had to rely on her family to make up shortfalls. Garcia provides financial support. Her parents, who arrived from Cuba more recently, contribute as well: Her father serves as arranger, while her mother oversees the sheet music as she did for the senior Urbay's orchestra in Cuba. Impressed by FCO performances and the positive audience response, local impresarios Tupack Rea and Arie Kaduri have also been supportive in producing performances.

Despite the effort necessary to keep FCO afloat, Urbay has begun to travel again, serving last year as guest conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Lima. The Peruvian press praised especially her interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Urbay decided to re-create the experience as best she could in Miami, bringing Russian-Peruvian violinist Alejandro Eduardovich Ferreira to Coral Gables for a performance of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. The concert was breathtaking, another instance of Urbay's trademark combination of iron musical discipline and poetic exaltation, an interpretation at once faithful and personal. Unlike Lima, there was echo in the local press. "It's difficult to get established in Miami," Urbay admits, "to open a space for yourself that will allow you to show what you know." But the conductor will never relinquish her baton.

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Adriana Herrera