When Fidel Leal, described by a Cuban music critic as “one of the most advanced and important Cuban pianists of his generation to storm into the first decade of this century” saw the bottom line on the cost of a music education at the New England Conservatory in Boston, he was crestfallen. Completely out of his price range, he returned to Cuba, his dream of earning a master’s in music in America unfulfilled.
Fate stepped in when an official at the U.S. Interest Section (now the U.S. Embassy) in Havana told Appalachian State University Associate Vice Chancellor for International Programs Jesse Lutabingwa about the plight of the young pianist she had come to know. Lutabingwa shared the information with Hayes School of Music (HSOM) Dean William Pelto, who reached out to Leal.
“I was just sitting in my place and Dean Pelto called,” Leal said. “‘Would you like to consider our school?’ he asked me. I checked Appalachian out and it was great. Teachers here were perfect.” The application process began, out-of-state tuition was waived and Leal came to Appalachian fall semester 2016 as a graduate assistant. During the process, Pelto heard Leal perform during a Mozart festival in Old Havana and met briefly with Leal’s father after the concert.
Leal is effusive about the support of Pelto and Lutabingwa and the overall kindness of the Appalachian Community. “They were very nice in New England,” he said, “but there is some kind of difference. Maybe it is southern. Your teachers really care about you, really try to help. If they can’t, they feel sorry.”
He said it was a serendipitous coincidence, too, that his piano professor here, Dr. Bair Shagdaron, is Russian – “a person who is like of the same school, you know? In Cuba we talked about Russia and the school of piano like a legend. It is new to study with this teacher but also known, because we are the same. Do you understand?”
Pelto said the university has interest in continuing a sustained relationship with colleagues in Cuba, as does the HSOM. The international opportunities there are robust, he said, because of the rich musical roots – European traditional, popular and folkloric – and the very different culture that is now so easily accessible. Because of Leal, Pelto said, the university already has an official relationship and it has been a successful one.
Leal was born in Matanzas, Cuba, a city about 100 kilometers from Havana. He started studying piano at the age of 7. He received his Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude in 2013 from the Higher Institute of Arts in Havana. Leal debuted with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in 2006. Since then he has performed with Cuba’s most important symphonic and chamber orchestras and has concertized in Costa Rica, Switzerland and France.
There is not a master’s program in Havana, so his plan had always been to study in the U.S. or in Europe. After his expected graduation in 2018, he would like to pursue a doctor of musical arts degree in the U.S. Although a classical pianist, he is interested in exploring jazz improvisation and theory.