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