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Morning Cadences Soothe Cuban Patients

Private Havana orchestra plays at the expense of cash-strapped Communist regime

A listless cymbal player clanged the beat as the Havana Psychiatric Hospital's own private, 115-member symphonic orchestra performed the "Spanish Military March" to an audience of four hospital gardeners.

The sparse showing was nothing new to the orchestra, which plays every Tuesday and Friday morning. The crew of mostly elderly men has been booming and squeaking everything from war marches to American show tunes since it began performing soon after Fidel Castro's bearded rebels seized power here in 1959.

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The hospital orchestra was once a proud symbol of the revolution's progressive idealism and quixotic defiance of "bourgeois" norms.

Now the lagging cadences and empty benches seem to mirror this communist society's current state of slumberous resignation. Beneath a specially built portico whose sallow paint has seen brighter days, the half-absent orchestra churns out tinny tunes on old, dented instruments and follows brittle handwritten music sheets. Some players doze off during the three-hour performances' frequent intermissions.

"Even if they don't come to watch, the patients pass by all the time," says Rolando Valdes, a psychologist and hospital administrator. "This is part of their therapy. It's a way for them to feel good."

The unconventional treatment also comes at the expense of the severely cash-strapped Communist-run government, whose scant resources prevent it from providing sufficient supplies to the island's 280 hospitals and other necessities to the government-dependent population of 11 million.

The full-time orchestra, with its own administrator, conductor, and team of technicians pays its players above-average salaries. "Yes, the money could go elsewhere," says Juan Morell, a baritone saxophonist, who has been playing with the aggregation since it began shortly after the revolution. "But I think it's a good thing. The patients like it, and it helps the time go by."

THE psychiatric hospital's private symphony was launched at the behest of its new director, Eduardo Bernabe Ordaz. The physician-guerrilla warrior had helped foot his medical school tuition by entertaining in bars before joining the revolution. He introduced the orchestra as part of a plan to turn Cuba's largest sanatorium - rundown and overcrowded - into "a model hospital" to showcase the new regime's health-care system. It included a well-manicured baseball diamond. Mr. Ordaz declared that music would be "a factor in the mental rehabilitation of the patients."

Over the years, the once all-male ensemble has allowed women to enter its ranks. Today there are six women among the 115 musicians, says Florencio Figueroa,the orchestra's administrator. It has received prominent praise, including national music awards and, most recently, the delivery of a rosary from Pope John Paul II during his January visit.

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"This hospital used to be a fiery hell, and [Ordaz] converted it into a garden of hope," says Ms. Figueroa. "We think the music has helped accomplish that. It's not a waste of money."

Not far from the clattering symphony, several of the hospital's 3,700 patients were sitting in a row of rocking chairs on a shady patio. Over the noise of jets that were taking off from the nearby Jos Mart International Airport, conductor Miguel Escosiz could be heard.

"Watch me - it doesn't say piano there, does it?" he complained. As the ensemble picked up, he barked, "Now, fortissimo!"

Alejandro Gonzalez, who has been a patient at the hospital for the past year, says he rarely has an opportunity to listen to the morning melodies. But, when he does, he appreciates it.

"The music makes me feel at ease," Gonzalez said. "It helps me forget everything else."

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