The Many Skills of an Orchestra’s Music Director

A recent attendance of a rehearsal of the Minnesota Orchestra highlighted for this amateur music-lover the many skills required of an accomplished music director of  a major symphony orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vanskä is such a music director [1] Below is his photograph while conducting.

First, he or she needs to have a thorough knowledge of the wealth of orchestral works in order to help plan an orchestra’s season.

Second, for a specific concert, the music director needs to be intimately familiar with the works on that concert’s program and retrieve or develop how he or she will interpret and conduct each piece, including facial and body movements.

Third, he or she must be able to communicate verbally (in English, for the Minnesota Orchestra) what he wants from each section of the Orchestra. This should be done with all humility and graciousness. At the rehearsal I attended, Vanskä said,”Thank you,” to the Orchestra at the completion of the rehearsal of one of the pieces for the upcoming concerts.

Fourth, at the performance of the pieces at a concert, he or she must be able to have a “stage presence” and bring all of this together for the audience’s enjoyment. When I have attended this orchestra’s concerts, I always have been amazed at Vanskä’s ability by facial and arm gestures and, I assume, by facial expressions I cannot see from the audience, to lead the orchestra in marvelous performances.

The work I heard for 75 minutes of the rehearsal was Tapiola (19 minutes concert performance time) by Jean Sibelius. This is a tone poem capturing the beauty, mystery and magic of the Scandinavian forest and portraying Tapio, the animating forest spirit mentioned throughout the Kalevala, a Finnish epic poem. In the score Sibelius added this preface: “Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; Within them dwells the forest’s mighty God, And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.” [2]

It must be mentioned that Finnish-born Vanskä is“renowned internationally for his compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires and  has led the Orchestra on five major European tours, as well as an August 2018 visit to London’s BBC Proms, and on historic tours to Cuba in 2015 and South Africa in 2018.  In addition, he has led the Orchestra in its award-winning recordings of the complete Sibelius and Beethoven symphonies and the upcoming completion of the recording of the 10 symphonies of Mahler.

As someone who has been on three church mission trips to Cuba and is a close follower and commentator on the U.S. pursuit of normalizing relations with Cuba under President Obama and the unfortunate retreat from those policies by the Trump Administration, I especially was thrilled by the Orchestra’s trip to the island in 2015. [3]   I similarly was thrilled by the Orchestra’s trip to South Africa in 2018, especially after I had seen and heard Mandela at a special program in London’s Westminster Hall in 2001 and by also having visited Cape Town and Robben Island.[4]

Vanskä started his professional musical career as a clarinetist. I fondly recall his beautiful performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at a benefit concert for displaced Syrians that was organized by some of the Orchestra’s musicians.[5]

In December 2018, the Orchestra announced that Vanskä, now 65 years old,  will leave the Orchestra when his current contract expires in 2022. He said, “I feel at this moment, more than ever in my life, that the Minnesota Orchestra is my own orchestra. And that’s a great feeling. What we have achieved, especially since the lockout, is something very special.”[6]

I join the many Orchestra listeners and patrons in saying he will be sorely missed and difficult to replace.

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[1] Suggestions of other skills of music directors are invited from those who know more about orchestras.

[2] Minn. Orchestra, Program (April 25-27, 2019).

[3] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBAMinnesota Orchestra To Go to Cuba (February 13, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week! (May 11, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2016).

[4]  See List of Posts to dwcommentaries—Topical—South Africa & Mandela. See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minnesota Orchestra Celebrates the Life of Nelson Mandela ((July 24, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s “Celebrating Mandela at 100” Concert (July 29, 2018); Inspirations for Minnesota Orchestra’s South African Tour (Aug. 14, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in South Africa (Cape Town), (Aug. 15, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s Other Activities in Cape Town, South Africa (Aug. 16, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Durban), (Aug. 18, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Pretoria), (Aug. 20, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Soweto), (Aug. 24, 2018); Minnesota Singer’s Celebration of Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in Soweto, (Aug. 29, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Johannesburg), (Aug. 25, 2018). See also Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial, (June 21,, 2003); Nelson Mandela Makes Connection with Cecil Rhodes (May 20, 2018). Minnesota Public Television  (tpt) has produced a television program about the Orchestra’s South African tour: Music for Mandela: Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa.The first showing of this program is May 5, 2019, 10:00 p.m. (CDT) on tpt’s Twin Cities station (Channel 2).

[5] Successful Benefit Concert for Displaced Syrians, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 7, 2016).

[6] Ross, Conductor Osmo Vanskä to exit Minnesota Orchestra when contract expires, StarTribune (Dec. 8, 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).

 

 

 

 

Minnesota Orchestra’s Other Activities in Cape Town, South Africa

Before the August 10 concert in Cape Town’s City Hall, the Orchestra’s Music Director Osmo Vänskä and some of the musicians took the 45-minute boat ride from the city across Table Bay to Robben Island to visit the prison where Mandela and other opponents of apartheid had been imprisoned.[1]

Their guide, Derrick Basson, 51, who had been a political prisoner there for five years, said that he and every other prisoner were “greeted” upon arrival with these words: “This is no Johannesburg or Pretoria. This is Robben Island. And over here, you’re certainly going to die.” Even the diet was discriminatory. “Bantus” (blacks) got no bread and less fat and sugar than “Coloureds” (mixed-race and Asians). They saw Mandela’s cell, which was barely 6 feet wide.

The morning after their concert, a brass quintet from the Orchestra spent some time at the Cape Town Music Institute, a school tucked behind the bleachers of Athlone Stadium in Cape Flats, a low-lying, flat area southeast of the central business district of Cape Town. Trombonist Doug Wright was impressed by the local brass musicians, who really  appreciated the visit by the Minnesota players.

Later that same morning, the Minnesota brass quintet and others from the Orchestra visited the Eurocon Primary School in Elsie’s River—just outside the city. They were greeted by a rousing song in the courtyard by the school choir. Then inside the Minnesota musicians in small groups with grade-schoolers and their families explained how their instruments worked and played in a string quartet, a woodwind quintet and a brass quintet. The kids rang with laughter when musician Steven Campbell, demonstrating how low his tuba could go, pretended to collapse under the effort.  Everyone then returned to the courtyard for dances by local women and performances by local singers, including the 29:11 group, which had performed in Minnesota last month.[2]

The school choir, led by a 12-year-old soloist sang—in English, Swahili and Afrikaans—“I Am a Small Part of the World.” It brought tears to the eyes of Minnesota cellist Marcia Peck, who said, “I just could see my daughter at Hopkins grammar school singing the same song.” Below is a photograph of the school choir.

Others from the Orchestra and Vänskä that day went to the Artscape Theatre Centre in downtown Cape Town  to rehearse and coach student members of the Cape Town Youth Orchestra. One of the pieces they played was Sibelius’ Finlandia. This prompted Vänskä to say they needed to know the story of this piece of music and its importance in Finland’s quest for independence from Russia.”When you play, you need to say something,” he said.

Cape Town, by the way, is the site of the country’s Legislature and is approximately 31 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula, which is the penultimate southern tip of the African Continent.

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[1] Ross, In South Africa, Minnesota orchestra makes grim visit to Mandela’s former prison cell, StarTribune (Aug. 13, 2018); Kerr, ‘A very sacred space’: Minn. Orchestra musicians visit Mandela’s Robben Island cell, MPR News (Aug. 9, 2018).

[2] Kerr, Music brings together Minnesota Orchestra musicians, South African students, MPRnews (Aug. 11, 2018); Minn. Orchestra, Cape Town/Aug 10-11; Ross, In teaching young South African talents, Minn. Orchestra musicians find their own inspiration, StarTribune (Aug. 15, 2018). These and other articles plus photographs are available online: http://www.startribune.com/follow-minnesota-orchestra-s-first-of-its-kind-tour-to-south-africa/488534621.

Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in South Africa (Cape Town)

On August 10, the Minnesota Orchestra played the first concert on its South African tour in Cape Town’s City Hall. Below are photographs of the City Hall’s auditorium where the concert was played and of its exterior (with Table Mountain in the background).[1]

 

 

 

 

The concert opened with the Orchestra playing the South African and U.S. national anthems and then Jean Sibelius’ “En Saga, ” an 1882 tone poem which the composer said was “ the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien.” (Sibelius and the Orchestra’s Music Director, Osmo Vänskä, are both Finnish natives.)

South African soprano, Goitsemang Lehobye, then joined the Orchestra to sing  “Harmonia Ubuntu,”  which was commissioned for this  tour and which had its world premiere at the Orchestra’s home in Minneapolis on July 21, 2018.  A review of the world premier of this work said it had a “bublingly eventful score that effectively referenced African rhythms and melodies, and peppered the orchestral textures with a Wasembe rattle and a djembe” African goblet-shaped drum.  [2]

The work’s  South African composer, Ndodana-Breen, who was in the audience for both of these concerts, said this work was inspired by Mandela’s exemplifying the African values of ubuntu—the knowledge that one’s humanity is tied in harmony to the humanity of others. The lyrics, which were drawn from Mandela’s speeches and writings, are the following (in English translation):

  • “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
  • “For to be free is not to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others.”
  • “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with them. Then he becomes your partner.”
  • “In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process. It requires more than just words. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”
  • “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
  • “We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well. That none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people for reconciliation, the birth of a new world.”
  • “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”
  • “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways you yourself have changed.”
  • “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
  • “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fail.”
  • “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

The concert concluded with Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, an operetta first performed on Broadway in 1956, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which had its premiere in Vienna in 1808.

After a few standing ovations, Vänskä, for the first encore, turned again to Sibelius. But for the second encore, the director returned to the podium with a surprise.

After single drum beats were joined by marimba and horns, the Orchestra musicians started singing  “Shosholoza,” a song originally sung (in call and response style) by all-male African workers working in diamond and gold mines and later sung by the prisoners on Robben Island. Mandela described it as “a song that compares the apartheid struggle to the motion of an oncoming train” and went on to explain that “the singing made the work lighter.” Here is one English translation of the lyrics: “Go forward. Go forward, from those mountains, on this train from South Africa. Go forward. Go forward. You are running away. You are running away, from those mountains, on this train from South Africa.”  It is so popular in South African culture that it often is referred to as the country’s unofficial national anthem.

As soon as the Orchestra started singing this song, the crowd erupted. They laughed, they clapped, they pulled out their cellphones. Then many of them sang along.

Before leaving this account of the Cape Town concert, it also should be mentioned that this city played an important part in the life of Nelson Mandela. Roughly 4 miles west of Cape Town across Table Bay lies Robben Island, where Mandela spent the first 18 years of his imprisonment. And on February 11, 1990, after over 26 years of imprisonment, he was released from Victor Verster Prison, roughly 40 miles east of Cape Town and immediately went to the front steps of its City Hall for his first speech as a free man for a crowd of 50,000 people and a worldwide television audience; this speech will be covered in a later post.

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[1] Minn. Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra in Cape Town, Blain, Beethoven, with South African flavor, StarTribune (July 23, 2018); Ross, Packing instruments and loads of goodwill, StarTribune (Aug. 5, 2018).

[2] Minn. Orchestra, Sommerfest Program;Blain, South African composer celebrates Mandela’s Message, StarTribune (July 20, 2018); Ross, Ode to Minnesota and South African Joy, StarTribune (July 22, 2018); Blain, Beethoven, with South African flavor, StarTribune (July 23, 2018); Ross, Packing instruments and loads of goodwill, StarTribune (Aug. 5, 2018); Ross, In a historic moment for Minnesota Orchestra, music echoes the words of Nelson Mandela, StarTribune (Aug. 10, 2018)(the digital version of this article has beautiful photographs of the concert).

[3] Burns, SOUTH AFRICA’s NEW ERA; on Mandela’s Walk, Hope and Violence, N.Y. Times (Feb. 12, 1990).