Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Johannesburg)

On August 18 the Minnesota Orchestra played its fifth and last concert in South Africa before a capacity audience of 1,000 that included Dr. Makaziwe “Maki” Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter.

Here is an account of the concert and Orchestra members’ intersections with local musicians.[1]

The Concert

The concert opened with the playing of the South African and U.S. national anthems.  The Orchestra then played the following works:

  • Overture to the operetta Candide by Leonard Bernstein, who shares this year with Nelson Mandela as the centennial of their births.
  • Harmonia Ubuntu, by South African composer Ndodana-Breen with lyrics taken from Mandela’s writings and speeches and with South African soprano, Goitsemang Lehobye, as soloist.
  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (The Choral Symphony) with the combined Minnesota Chorale and South Africa’s Gauteng Choristers and soloists (Goitsemang Lehobye, soprano; Minette Du Toit-Pearce, mezzo-soprano; Siyabonga Maqungo, tenor; and Njabulo Madlala, bass-baritone).

Osmo Vänskä returned to the stage after a standing ovation, conducting the orchestra and choir in “Usilethela Uxolo.” He then turned the podium over to Xolani Mootane, who brought down the house with “Bawo Thixo Somandla.” Vänskä again returned to lead the ensemble in a final vocal performance of the unofficial national anthem, “Shosholoza.”

The concert was held in the Johannesburg City Hall, he home of many historical and political events throughout its more than 100-year history. Here are photograph of the Hall and of the Orchestra, both by Travis Anderson.

 

 

 

 

Minnesota-Local Interactions

At a post-concert farewell dinner, the Orchestra’s President and CEO, Kevin Smith, said this tour is, “by all accounts, the biggest project the orchestra has ever done. it’s hard to know where it goes from here, but I think the orchestra will continue to be more adventurous and extensive in how it works and with whom it works and where it goes.”

Roderick Cox, the Orchestra’s Associate Conductor, stayed the next day (Sunday) to conduct the African National Young Orchestra in in Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 after they had rehearsed the work the prior week with Orchestra musicians. According to Cox, his job is to “ take all this vibrant, passionate sound they’re giving and try to contain it and shape it for the music we’re doing, like Sibelius.” An aspiring local conductor, Chad Hendricks, age 27, commented  that seeing Cox, who is black, on the platform, “inspired a lot of kids.” For South Africans growing up in black and mixed-race communities, there aren’t a lot of opportunities, and there isn’t a lot of exposure to this kind of thing. A lot of the underprivileged kids that were here … they’re seeing someone they can relate to.”[2]

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[1] Minn. Orch., Minnesota Orchestra in Johannesburg (Aug. 18, 2018); Minn. Orch., Johannesburg/Aug 18.

[2] Ross, A young South African symphony takes its cue from the Minnesota  Orchestra, StarTribune (Aug. 23, 2018); Chamberlain, “Tour’ is inadequate to explain what’s happening between the Minnesota Orchestra and South African musicians, MinnPost (Aug. 17, 2018).

Inspirations for Minnesota Orchestra’s South African Tour

This August the Minnesota Orchestra will be in South Africa for concerts in five cities while previews were provided in concerts at its home in Minneapolis.[1]

The Inspirations for the Tour

There are at least three events that inspired this tour.[2]

  1. The Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba[3]

In May 2015 the Minnesota Orchestra went to Cuba for two concerts in Havana. On this short trip the U.S. musicians discovered the joy of meeting and working with young musicians from another country at their music schools and in side-by-side rehearsals, an experience to be duplicated in South Africa. These Cuban interactions inspired a freelance clarinetist on the tour, Rena Kraut, to create a Minnesota non-profit, Cuban American Youth Orchestra (CAYO), whose mission is to provide “a professional-level musical and educational experience in which Cuban and American youth can turn to each other with honest curiosity and a true desire for mutual learning [and thereby] leave a musical imprint on the hearts of our musicians, staff and audience, cultivating a spirit of goodwill and hope for our mutual futures.”

Moreover, said Music Director Osmo Vänskä, Cuba changed the ensemble after a contentious 16-month labor dispute and lock out. “We had already started to do things a new way with more collaboration, more teamwork. . . . Now, when we go somewhere, we don’t want to play and go home. We want to leave something there.”

The Cuba trip also demonstrated that this organization could respond quickly and competently to new opportunities. On December 17, 2014, Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously announced that the two countries had started a process of normalizing their relations, and soon thereafter the Minnesota Orchestra announced that it would be going to Cuba in May 2015 for two concerts in Havana. This experience gave them confidence that they could tackle new opportunities and did not have to wait for larger, more prestigious orchestras to blaze paths.

As Kevin Smith, the Orchestra’s outgoing CEO and President recently stated, the South African tour of five concerts in five cities over 11 days and nearly 9,000 miles from home and the integration of two choirs with different native languages in a country whose native languages probably were unknown to the Minnesotans was on “steroids” compared with the two back-to-back concerts in one city (Havana) over less than one week with only orchestral music and “only” 1,630 miles from home in a country whose native language (Spanish) was probably known to at least some of the Minnesotans.

  1. Music Director Vänskä’s Conducting a South African Youth Orchestra

In 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa Music Director Vänskä conducted the South African National Youth Orchestra and said this experience was “a turning point in my life.” One reason for that impact was his learning that some of the musicians lived in tents and tin shacks and still loved music and could play at the highest level. When the Minnesota Orchestra visits that city this August he will lead side-by-side rehearsals with that same youth orchestra. He said, “It is a great experience when young musicians can sit next to the professional musicians and share these things.” In South Africa, he added, classical music is sometimes seen as being “for white people,” but he hopes this tour will reach the country’s black people too.

At a welcoming dinner this August in Cape Town, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the Chair of the Orchestra’s Board, toasted the person who invited Osmo to conduct this youth orchestra because that person “created the dream in Osmo’s head that we must come [to South Africa] and we must make music and make the world better place through musical understanding. So thank you, Osmo, for letting us be part of your dream.”

  1. Celebration of Nelson Mandela’s Centennial

In 2016-17 the Orchestra realized that 2018 would be the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela with many celebrations around the world, and the Orchestra people thought that  such a tour would be another appropriate way of honoring Mandela.

Making the Dream a Reality

Turning the dream of a South African tour into a reality obviously required a lot of planning and financial resources.

The financial support for this expensive project was provided by an anonymous couple and by the following nine major Minnesota-based companies or affiliates: Ecolab Foundation;  Medtronic Foundation, TCF Financial Corporation; Land O’Lakes, Inc.; 3M Corporation; U.S. Bank; THOR Companies; Target Corporation; and Pentair. Some of the funds from the Medtronic Foundation will be used to buy concert tickets for less-fortunate South Africans and their children.

Minnesota Orchestra Board Chair Nelson said, “We are immensely grateful to our individual and corporate donors for making this project possible. We live in an interconnected world, and the ‘Music for Mandela’ project underscores this idea, bringing together business support, community members, cultural interests and international performers to harness the power of music by commemorating an iconic visionary of our time.”

To assist with the tour logistics, the Orchestra retained Classical Movements, a U.S. company that since 1994 has arranged 250 concerts in South Africa, mainly by U.S. choirs. Classical Movements President Neeta Helms said, “After working in South Africa since 1994, Classical Movements is very grateful that one of the top orchestras in the United States will make this historic, first-ever tour to South Africa. It is an enormous undertaking and a statement of the importance of Africa and the growth of orchestral music in this most choral of countries. This dynamic and visionary Orchestra is exactly the right musical ambassador to pave the way for others to follow.”

Conclusion

The Orchestra’s CEO and President, Kevin Smith, said, This [tour] is our chance to musically honor a great leader and to share music and goodwill across international borders. It is a unique opportunity to bring cultures together through music, and we are honored to play a role in the Nelson Mandela centenary celebration.”

Principal Horn, Michael Gast, put it well when he said, “We are not averse to risk and challenges. We’re the orchestra that goes where others haven’t or won’t.”

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[1] See 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).

[2] Minnesota Orchestra, Program: Sommerfest 2018; Classical Movements, Minnesota Orchestra: Music for Mandela; Ross, Ode to Minnesotan and South African Joy, StarTribune (July 22, 2018); Ross, Packing instruments and loads of goodwill, StarTribune (July 5, 2018); Ross, South African tour represents ‘a new way’ for Minnesota Orchestra, StarTribune (Aug. 10, 2018); Ross, Another first for Minnesota Orchestra: A tour of South Africa, StarTribune (Aug. 10, 2018); Ross, Gallery: Minnesota Orchestra previews South African tour: ‘Music became a weapon against apartheid, StarTribune (Aug. 10, 2018); Ross, In a historic moment for Minnesota Orchestra, music echoes the words of Nelson Mandela, StarTribune (Aug. 13, 2018); Kerr, Minnesota orchestra hopes voices rise, walls fall on South Africa tour, classical MPR (Aug. 7, 2018).

[3] See thee posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minnesota Orchestra To Go to Cuba (Feb. 13, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week! (May 11, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2015).

 

Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week!

MN OrchestraAs discussed in a prior post, this February the Minnesota Orchestra announced that it would be playing two concerts in Havana, Cuba on May 15 and 16. At the invitation of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra will play Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the Cuban National Choir and Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez as well as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. In addition, on the 15th they will play Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” and on the 16th Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

According to a recent article in Minnesota’s StarTribune newspaper, [1] this past January the Orchestra’s president, Kevin Smith, thought it would be great if the Orchestra could be the first U.S. ensemble to go to Cuba after the December 17th announcement of rapprochement between the U.S. and the island nation. Smith immediately called Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and asked for help in pursing this idea. She, of course, said yes with this comment: “This trip is an example of the type of relationship we want to continue building between our people. Cubans are looking forward to more opportunities to interact with Americans.” [2]

Smith then asked the Orchestra’s musicians if they would give up a scheduled week of vacation in May in order to go to Cuba. They too said yes with enthusiasm. An Orchestra violinist, Aaron Janse, who was in a small advance group that went to Cuba in April, said, “We absolutely feel that we represent the state, the United States. We have a responsibility to be a bridge between the two countries. For us, as a community, to get this all together speaks volumes to where the Minnesota Orchestra is.”

Both concerts will be broadcast live by Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music stations (99.5 FM in the Twin Cities) on May 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. (CDT). Tune in.

The Orchestra also will visit a musical school and arts university and hold a joint rehearsal with a Cuban youth orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra members will give small “Minnesota Orchestra” pins to people they meet. Presumably they will be wearing “Minnesota Twins” baseball caps as they travel around Havana. As former Minnesota Twins Cuban-American baseball player, Tony Oliva, has said, Cubans know about the Twins and their cap.

Accompanying the Orchestra on a chartered direct flight from the Twin Cities to Havana will be a group of board members and community supporters as “cultural ambassadors.” They will be led by board member, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and her husband, Glen Nelson, who are paying for the trip. As a co-owner and former chairman of Carlson Companies, a global hotel company, Carlson Nelson is interested in business opportunities in Cuba for her company.

On a historical note, the Orchestra (then called the Minneapolis Symphony) in 1929 and 1930 performed in Havana, and one of its pieces on the first trip was Beethoven’s “Third Symphony,” which will be played again this weekend by the Orchestra. MPR News has a 1929 photograph of some of the Symphony members getting ready to board a ship in Havana after their first trip.

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[1] In addition to the StarTribune article, check out information about the trip on the Orchestra’s website and in a MPR News article.

[2] As discussed in prior posts, Senator Klobuchar is a strong advocate for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. She is the author of the pending Senate bill to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba. She was a member of a U.S. Senate delegation that visited Cuba this February. She endorsed the formation of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba that is being lead by Minnesota’s Cargill Incorporated.