Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra takes trip of a lifetime to Cuba

The Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra departed from the Bay Area Wednesday for a concert tour to a country most Americans have never visited.

With their instruments, strings, reeds, scores and suitcases packed, the 57 members of the Youth Orchestra gathered at SFO Airport to board a flight for their trip to Cuba.

They have spent months practicing and scraping together funds for a monumental chance that their conductor says he didn't want them to miss.

"It's an opportunity that might not come again and that if you don't go now it might be different if you go later," said Omid Zoufonoun, Principal Conductor of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, who will be leading the group.

One of the orchestra members, violist Cassidy Hall, 17, was especially excited to go. He has been in the orchestra just one year, but has a deep understanding of how making music can change your life.

"The orchestra is really great. It's the best orchestra I've ever been in. It has such a great environment. It has really great people," Cassidy said, smiling.

Cassidy says for three years now music has been his lifeline.

"I started when I was in sixth grade and then when I was in the ninth grade, my mom had passed away from cancer. And I kind of lost everything that meant anything to me the only thing that I had left was music," Cassidy said, "I felt very alone and the only thing I ever let in was music."

"Whenever I play music I feel more connected to her," he said.

"She would just smile I think. She would be very proud," said Timothy Hall, Cassidy's father.

The students are set to play three concerts in Cuba, in three different cities and they'll get a coaching session in Afro-Cuban music.

"I'm looking forward to exploring the museums, the concerts, meeting the locals should be pretty fun," said Ashni Mathuria, an orchestra member who was standing in line with her parents at the Copa ticket counter at SFO.

'I'm feeling a little bit nervous and also exciting yeah," said Shun Kodaira, another orchestra member.

It is a trip that their conductor hopes will teach the Bay Area students about music's power to transcend national boundaries, culture, and time.

"You can see it in their body language, that it's not something foreign to them. It doesn't matter that it's from a couple hundred years ago or that it's somebody was wearing a white wig when they were writing the music. None of this really ultimately matters," said Zoufonoun,

For Cassidy, it will be that power of music, his mother and his family that he'll be remembering with every note.

"Prokovieff," he said smiling, as he thought about the pieces they plan to perform in Cuba, "She would love the Romeo and Juliet by Prokovieff. She liked romantic music."

The Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra plans to post photos and updates on their blog.

The cost of the tour is $4,000 per student, so they hope to still raise some funds though an indiegogo campaign to offset the costs, of what will likely be a culturally and musically enriching experience.