On its first tour of the United States since Fidel Castro seized control of the country in 1959, the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba will be visiting Aiken, making its only appearance in our state as part of a 16-city tour. What an extraordinary opportunity for area citizens to hear from a musical organization cut off from the outside world for more than five decades!

The orchestra’s visit to Aiken also affords a chance to test the old adage that music builds bridges between cultures, even those separated by widely disparate political ideologies. The Nov. 2 concert, part of the 2012-2013 USCA Cultural Series, will begin with the national anthems of two countries whose bilateral relations are still strained but showing signs of slow improvement.

The first official piece on the program gives a nod to a time when Americans chose Cuba as a popular travel destination. In fact, “Cuban Overture” was the product of a two-week holiday enjoyed by American composer George Gershwin in 1932. During his stay in the island nation, Gershwin was impressed by Cuban music and dance, particularly the hit song of the period, “Echale Salsita,” by Afro-Cuban composer Ignacio Pineiro. Ironically enough, Pineiro composed his popular rumba melody while on a train headed for Chicago in 1930. Thus, a Cuban hit written in the United States inspired an American overture composed in Cuba.

The New York Philharmonic premiered the “Cuban Overture” in an all-Gershwin program in August of 1932, and it has been a critical favorite ever since. Originally entitled “Rumba,” the overture or tone poem features Latin American rhythms punctuated by native percussion instruments: bongo, claves, gourd and maracas.

From the 10-minute opening piece by Gershwin, the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba rounds out the first half of the program with a major work by a Russian composer, the “Piano Concerto Number 2” by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Given the fact that the composer fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet Union eventually became the biggest supporter of Castro’s Cuba until the dissolution of the Eastern bloc in 1991, this is a thought-provoking choice.

Ideological considerations aside, however, there is no refuting the fact that the concerto is one of the finest pieces in the keyboard repertoire. Composed in 1900-1901, the work, according to his biographers, signaled Rachmaninoff’s emergence from one of his frequent periods of depression. In fact, it is dedicated to a physician who presumably was instrumental in restoring him to health.

Even to those not familiar with symphonic music, parts of the concerto will raise a smile. The principal melody in the second movement – marked adagio or “at ease” – was adapted by pop vocalist Eric Carmen for his 1975 ballad “All by Myself.” The second theme of the third movement – marked allegro or “quickly and bright” – was made famous as the principal melody in Frank Sinatra’s 1945 hit “Full Moon and Open Arms.”

For the 1901 premiere of the “Piano Concerto No. 2,” Rachmaninoff himself served as keyboard soloist; for the Nov. 2 concert, the pianist will be Nachito Herrera, who made his stage debut at the age of 12 in Cuba, playing this very same concerto.

After a short intermission, the orchestra will return to the stage to perform “La Comparsa” by Cuban pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona, who made his name in the world of operetta and motion picture scores – he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1942 for “Always in My Heart.” The term “comparsa” refers to a group of masked people celebrating Carnival, the last gasp of frivolity preceding the somber sacrifices of Lent, and the piece itself replicates the passing of a group of boisterous street revelers.

Next week’s concert concludes with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 4.” Subtitled “Italian Symphony,” the four-movement piece was inspired by the German composer’s extended tour of Europe between 1829 and 1831. On this grand tour, made possible by the financial support of his parents, one of his stops was Italy. Mendelssohn was so strongly affected by what he saw and heard there that he composed this symphony, which he himself conducted at its London premiere in 1833. Like so much of the music to be performed in the Nov. 2 concert, the symphony is informed by native dance rhythms. In this case, it is the Roman saltarello – presumably based on the composer’s happy participation in Carnival festivities in the Eternal City – and the Neapolitan tarantella, both lively Italian folk dances.

For information on ticket availability for what will surely be one of the highlights of the performing arts season in Aiken, call the Etherredge Center Box Office at 641-3305.

A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” has just been published by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).