Minnesota Singer’s Celebration of Minnesota Orchestra’s Soweto Concert

Scott Chamberlain, a member of the Minnesota Chorale, in a MINNPOST article has celebrated the August 17 concert in Soweto’s Regina Mundi Church by a combined choir that included the Chorale accompanied by the Minnesota Orchestra. [1]

Before the concert, Scott’s Minnesota friend, Mariellen Jacobson, met Teresa, “a beautiful, 80-something” [South African] woman.. . . and learned that she was a parishioner of the church. She spoke passionately about the past, and what it was like living through those tumultuous times. In the student uprisings of 1976, some of the young schoolboys fled to the church to escape the police’s bullets and tear gas. The police followed them right into the church and fired live ammunition inside the sanctuary.” [Teresa said you could still see the bullet holes.] ‘Look up at the crucifix. You’ll see that Jesus has three fingers on his right hand and five fingers on his left hand. Yes, one of the bullets had hit the sculpture.’ “And there it was. This brought it home just how real these events were … this wasn’t something for the history book, but part of the life story of real people.”

Scott added that “Soweto was ready. Long before the concert got under way, a substantial crowd had arrived at the church’s gates, with an excited air of anticipation. Many had never been to a live classical concert before and jumped at a chance to hear how one sounded. Perhaps best of all, a large number of young children were on hand, as Minnesotan Jill Chamberlain discovered. Cousins Tebogo (age 11) and Keo (age 10) were brought by their mother/aunt Josephine. They were seated next to Jill, and once settled, they cheerfully drilled her about concert protocol, how the music would sound … and asked such important questions as what kind of restaurants there were in America and how Americans made their porridge.”

“All in all, excited concertgoers overwhelmed the ticket takers at the door, forcing the concert to start 20 minutes late.”

Scott continued, “the singers of the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers and [the South African vocal group] 29:11[named after Jeremiah 29:11]  filled the aisles and belted out the South African national anthem. We were loud, but we were almost certainly drowned out by the 1,300 voices of audience who added their voices to ours. It was a moment of welcome, pride and shared exuberance.”

“The middle-aged [South African] woman next to me was wonderfully fun to sing with — she had a voice that would make any singing group proud. And best of all, she lost none of her exuberance when the orchestra followed up with the Star-Spangled Banner. She didn’t know the words, but effortlessly switched to ‘da-da-da,’ sung with an enormous grin. She loved it. I rarely get hugs handshakes from audience members during an actual performance, but this audience member was giving them out aplenty.”

When the South African soprano, Goitsemang Lehobye “boldly strode out to center stage in gorgeous traditional dress, [to sing with the Orchestra the South African composition for this very tour, Harmonia Ubuntu], the audience went absolutely crazy. I was so, so happy about the inclusion of this piece. It was good, and deserves wider performance. But more than that, it proudly demonstrated that this concert — and by extension, this entire tour — wasn’t about simply performing western art music at local audiences, but actually engaging audiences and performers alike in a shared musical exchange. It showed curiosity about other music  and a willingness to learn about it and embrace it. It showed respect.”

“And the audience absolutely loved it.”

At the conclusion of this piece, “Goitsemang and Osmo [Vänskä] were greeted with an ear-splitting roar that went way beyond appreciation … it showed love. And from that moment, the audience and musicians were one. We were in this together.”

The Orchestra and combined choir then performed the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the Choral Symphony). As Chamberlain said, “it is famously one of the most athletic, brutal works to sing in the standard repertoire. But there it was. It was the perfect piece to sing at Regina Mundi — a musical celebration of our shared humanity and universal joy. And the combined voices of the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers, and 29:11 made sure that Beethoven’s song of joy shook Heaven itself. . . . If the audience was fired up before, they were absolutely on fire at the end of the Beethoven.”

“And with that, the concert really got going. Next, Vänskä programmed . . . [four] South African songs that cranked up the excitement even further.”

Akhala Amaqhude Amabili is a setting of two Zulu folk songs, linked by a shared motive of a rooster call (Kikilikigi! in Zulu) to rouse up the community and get ready for the day. The audience loved it.”

The next piece by the combined choir [conducted by Xolani Mootane], an a cappella South African song, Bawo Tixo Somandla, “brought the house down. Back in the 1970s, the work was originally written as an anti-apartheid protest song, asking God the insistent question, ‘Father, God omnipotent, what have we done? Why do we kill each other like this?’. . . This was a work incredibly important to me — singing that song, while I could look around the church and literally see bullet holes left behind by paramilitary raids, was powerful beyond words. The audience had already started singing along when Xolani turned on the podium and gestured for the crowd to rise to their feet. They did so with a roar of voices and began dancing with us. It was a musical spectacle that will always, always stay with me, as we together turned that song into a cry for unity and an end to violence.”

The next song, Ruri (Truly) by Michael Mosoeu Moerane, was gentler, “but no less celebratory song . . .  celebrating God’s creation, where all things—even ferocious crocodiles — are part of a harmonious whole. It is a much-loved, South African favorite.”

“The roof was then blown off yet again with . . .[the final programmed South African song] Usilethela Uxolo, a festive song honoring Nelson Mandela based on a work by South African jazz legend Stompie Mavi. This time the audience needed no invitation — as soon as the chorus came in and started dancing on stage, the audience followed suit. It was wonderful, crazy, musical bedlam, with everyone onstage and offstage joining in the celebration. My God what a party! Seriously… World Cup soccer crowds are more reserved. The roar that filled that church when we were done about shook Regina Mundi off its foundation.”

For an encore, the Orchestra “launched into Shosholoza, a beloved standard that functions as a second national anthem for South Africa. The orchestra players set aside their instruments and belted out the first verse through their voices alone, to the rousing support of the audience. When the chorus came in, bedlam broke out all over again. Dancing! Singing! Bigger dancing, and bigger singing! When it was over we got the biggest roar of them all — and that’s saying something.”

When Chamberlain and the other Minnesota singers thought the concert had ended, some of the male singers in the Gauteng Choristers “started to belt out a song of their own. Soon, all the South African singers caught the tune, and in voices again geared to shake the earth and rattle the heavens, began singing and dancing us off the stage in a completely unscripted kind of exit music, to the continued cheers of the audience. It was remarkable. The orchestra members, in the process of putting their instruments away, stopped with wide-eyed amazement and dived for their cellphones to snap pictures.”

“We in the Chorale had no idea about what the words were, but hey … when we find ourselves in a midst of a musical after-party, we learn fast and join right in. Soon we were singing as well, slowly working our way off stage. But the singing didn’t stop. To our astonishment, our South African peers enveloped us and began marching with us outside the building, and around the church in a musical parade that lasted about 15 minutes. People on the outside rushed forward and joined in the song, reaching in through the fence to give us high fives as we danced across the grounds.”

Scott concluded, “I have never felt so much joy, so much pure, unadulterated joy. Music did that. Music brought us together, wiped out any petty distinctions among us, and for a moment made us one, wonderful family. The universal joy envisioned in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy became real — right there in Soweto.”

Thank you, Scott Chamberlain, for this enthralling and inspiring report.

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[1] Chamberlain, The Minnesota Orchestra’s Extraordinary Experience in Soweto, MINNPOST (Aug. 24, 2018). There also are great photographs of this concert in Ross, Embracing the soul of Soweto,as Minnesota Orchestra finds music is universal language, StarTribune (Aug. 24, 2018). A recording of the concert is available at MPRClassical FM radio. See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Nelson Mandela’s Connections with Soweto (Aug. 22, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Soweto) (Aug. 24, 2018).

 

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Soweto)

The centerpiece of the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour of South Africa was its August 17 concert in Soweto’s Regina Mundi Roman Catholic Church. As shown in prior posts,the township and church played central roles in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, and Soweto was the home for Nelson Mandela before his imprisonment and the site for at least two of his speeches to the nation. [1]

The importance of this concert was emphasized by Bongani Ndodana-Breen, the South African composer of the piece for orchestra and soprano that was performed at all of the South African concerts. He said, “We have a history where culture was used by the apartheid regime to prove its cultural superiority over Africans. So one of the most enlightened things about this tour is that the orchestra is doing a concert in Soweto, the heartland of the resistance against apartheid. For them to go there is huge. It’s going to be very emotional.”

The Concert

Now we look at the concert itself, the highlights being the choral music provided by 50 members of the Minnesota Chorale and 50 members of Johannesburg’s Gauteng Choristers, the latter a group of talented youth from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. Below are photographs of the church and of the choirs that night.

 

 

 

 

The Orchestra opened with the South African national anthem, which was sung with full-throated enthusiasm by the audience of more than 1,000 people, most of whom were black and many lifelong Soweto residents and also included members of the South African Youth Orchestra who had rehearsed with the Minnesota Orchestra earlier in the week. The smaller number of U.S. attendees tried their best to match that joy with the U.S. national anthem.

First, the Orchestra played pieces from previous concerts on this tour—Sibelius’ En Saga and Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide.

Especially significant for the largely black South African audience was the performance of  Ndodana-Breen’s Harmonia Ubuntu with lyrics from the writings of Nelson Mandela and the singing by South African soprano, Goitsemang Lehobye.

Then the Orchestra and the combined choirs of Gauteng Choristers and the Minnesota Chorale performed the Final Movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (The Choral Symphony). All of the soloists were South African: –Goitsemang Lehobye, soprano; Minette Du Toit-Pearce, mezzo soprano; Siyabonga Maqungo,tenor; and Njabulo Madiala, bass-baritone.

Afterwards. David Mennicke, a tenor section leader for the Minnesota Chorale, said this performance of the Ninth Symphony was especially moving. “To sing it in this context with brothers and sisters from halfway across the world—that feeling, that sentiment, that idea of all humanity becoming brothers and sisters—we are actually . . . becoming that.”

The concert ended with the following three South African pieces for chorus and orchestra:

  • Akhala Amaqhude Amabili by J.S. Mzilikazi Khumalo (orchestrated by Peter Louis Van Dijk) is a combination of two Zulu folk “wake-up” songs in which the Zulu cock-crow call (Kikilikigi) admonishes the people to get up and start the day, an important signal for people who had no time-pieces.
  • Ruri (Truly) by Michael Mosoeu Moerane (arranged by Sue Cook) celebrates nature as evidence of divine benevolence.
  • Usilethela uxolo (Nelson Mandela) by Stompi Mavi (arranged by Gobingca George Mxadana and orchestrated by Jaakko Kuusisto). The text celebrates Mandela’s release from prison, and this song remained a popular tribute to Mandela throughout his life.

The last of these brought the audience to its feet, singing, stepping, clapping and shouting “U-Mandela.”

Interjected in these three songs was one for chorus alone: Bavo Thixo Somandla by Arnold Mxolisi Matyila (arranged by J. S. Mzilikazi Khumalo). In the 1980s this song was adopted by protesters against apartheid. Eventually it became one of South Africa’s most popular and familiar protest songs.[2] It too had the audience singing, clapping and dancing.

After encores, including “Shosholosa,” the unofficial South African national anthem, Orchestra members left the stage while many of the singers cried and hugged one another and the bass singers in the two groups started stepping and singing. Violinist Susie Park with tears streaming on her cheeks said the experience reminded her of music’s pure power. “It’s bigger than ourselves and our perspectives. We have to share it with the world. And that’s what we did here.”

Overlooking the concert was the church’s             stained-glass image of Nelson Mandela.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minnesota and South African Musicians’ Interactions

On the Friday morning of the concert four of the Orchestra’s musicians gave solo and chamber music performances for students at Missourilaan Secondary School. The Minnesotans then attended a special event for their home-based nonprofit Books For Africa, which is donating 40,000 books to this community, some 12,000 of which for this school. Judge LaJune Lange, Minnesota’s Honorary South African Consul, said, “We want to partner with Missourilaan and make it a place of excellence,”

At Regina Mundi, immediately before the concert, Minnesota Orchestra musicians, dressed in their concert black, wandered through the crowd. They chatted with the early arrivals, showing and explaining their instruments to young members of the audience, as their adult companions listened in too.

The principal interactions were those of the Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers. After all they had to sing together in languages that were unfamiliar to both groups (German in Beethoven’s symphony for the South Africans and African languages for the Minnesotans). That is why they started rehearsals on Monday for the Friday concert although the Minnesotans had sung the South African pieces at home in a July concert, Maya Tester, a Minnesota soprano, said that in South Africa their movements got looser, the dynamics bigger and the pronunciations more precise. There also was a generational difference: the South African singers were in their 20s and 30s while the Minnesotans were 20 to 30 years older.

Conclusion

This concert truly was an awe-inspiring highpoint of the Orchestra’s South African tour. I wish I had been there.

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[1] Minn. Orch., Minnesota Orchestra in Soweto (Aug. 17, 2018); Minn. Orch., Soweto/Aug 17; South African composer celebrates ‘Mandela’s message, StarTribune (July 20, 2018); Ross, Minnesota Singers join voices with South African choir: ‘It’s Magic All the Way,’ StarTribune (Aug 17, 2018); Kerr, Soweto crowd rapturously responds to Minnesota Orchestra, MPRnews (Aug. 17, 2018); Singers from two nations didn’t want it to end, StarTribune (Aug. 19, 2018); Ross, Soweto concert is an ode to joy in many languages, StarTribune (Aug. 20, 2018); Ross, Embracing the soul of Soweto as Minnesota Orchestra finds music is a universal language, StarTribune (Aug. 24, 2018).

[2] All of these four South African songs were performed by the Minnesota Orchestra in its July 20 concert at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall.  (Minnesota Orchestra’s “Celebrating Mandela at 100” Concert, dwkcommentaries.com (July 29, 2018).