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Ignacio 'Nachito' Herrera 

CEDAR FALLS – Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera is always at a fever pitch.

The internationally acclaimed Cuban classical and contemporary pianist puts every ounce of energy into his music and carries an audience along with his passion, enthusiasm and soulfulness.

“It’s in my nature, even when I am being low-key,” said Herrera, who makes his home in Minneapolis. “I come to perform with my battery fully charged, and I use it all up. I don’t care about tomorrow. Today is today. The audience is here to hear me play. I don’t like to save any energy for myself for the next day.”

The pianist will be featured soloist for “From Havana to the Arabian Nights” with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra on Saturday at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. Conductor Jason Weinberger will be on the podium as the orchestra opens its 90th anniversary season.

Herrera will perform George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” One of his favorite concert pieces, “Rhapsody” marries his love for classical and jazz idioms. “My regret is that it’s not longer — why is ‘Rhapsody’ not a longer piece? It’s like holding the most expensive perfume in the world in your hand, but it’s a tiny bottle and gone too soon. I just want to keep playing and playing,” the pianist said, with a laugh.

Herrera also will play a “surprise” piece that isn’t divulged on the program.

“This is a very exotic concert that showcases an incredible diversity of styles and composers in terms of nationality, race and gender. The program is just so colorful and emblematic of what we’ll be doing in concert throughout the year,” Weinberger explained.

The lushly romantic “Scheherazade” by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and African-American composer Florence Price’s Concert Overture No. are on the program. The Price composition is the first performance in a series of works by women composers planned for the season.

Herrera is considered by many as the greatest Cuban pianist of his generation. At 12, the young genius stunned Cuban audiences when he performed Rachmaninoff’s challenging Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Havana Symphony Orchestra. At 16, he was invited onstage by famed Cuban pianist and Buena Vista Social Club member Ruben Gonzalez, who inspired the young pianist to study traditional Cuban rhythms.

The Emmy and Grammy award-winning pianist has toured the world as lead pianist, arranger and musical director of the famed Cubanismo ensemble and was a guest with the Afro-Cuban All Stars on their U.S. tour. He has played at the finest concert halls and jazz festivals around the world, including the Cuban National Symphony. He also has played at the University of Northern Iowa’s Tallcorn Jazz Festival.

Herrera works hard to “make it look easy.” He devotes seven to eight hours each day to playing piano, working on technique and interpretation and playing through various pieces he will perform on stage.

“I want it fresh in my fingers and my brain,” the pianist explained. On stage, he plays from memory. “I don’t like to read music on stage. I pour myself into each piece, and it is a more enjoyable experience for the audience.”

Even as a seasoned professional, Herrera has lost none of his boyhood enthusiasm. “Music is a wonderful language to bring people together. I’ve worked hard, and my passion is still all encompassing. As a young boy, I dreamed of performing on stages around the world. I’m happy because I can see the results of my hard work. It is always a blessing. I know this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Weinberger is excited about his first time working with Herrera. “It’s going to be a treat for me. I’m a big fan of Afro-Cuban music, and I’ve listened to Nachito’s music for a number of years. I’m looking forward to forming a lasting relationship,” the conductor said.

That’s Herrera’s goal, as well. He describes himself as a soloist who “wants to add one more name to the friends’ list. I want to go there and have fun and collaborate with the orchestra. It is my privilege and honor to play with this orchestra. I hope it won’t be the last.”

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