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).

 

Successful Benefit Concert for Displaced Syrians

arc_tw_graphic_1027152-b39f6fe5On January 3, 2016, a group of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra played a beautiful and successful concert to benefit Syrians displaced in their own country.[1] Here is a poster for the concert with photographs of (a) Erin Keefe, the Orchestra’s Concertmaster, with Osmo Vänskä, the Orchestra’s Music Director; and (b) Beth Rapier and Tony Ross, Cellists with the Orchestra and the originators of the idea for the concert.

The concert raised over $75,000 for the Minneapolis-headquartered American Refugee Committee (ARC) to support its efforts to help the 7.6 million Syrians who have been forced to relocate within their own country because of the war.[2] There ARC with the aid of heroic Syrians works to:

  • help improve the physical conditions of make-shift shelters where people have fled;
  • build and repair water and sanitation infrastructure, helping to prevent disease;
  • provide youth mentoring and support services;
  • reconnect orphaned children with family members;
  • counsel victims of abuse and trauma; and
  • provide children the opportunity to play and have fun.

Other contributions for this cause would be appreciated; just go to ARC’s website [http://www.arcrelief.org/site/PageServer] and do so.

The concert was opened by the Minnesota Orchestra Brass Quintet. They played several numbers, including Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” and “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” the Broadway musical. The Quintet members were Douglas Wright, trombone; Robert Doerr and Charles Lazarus, trumpet; Steven Campbell, tuba; and Michael Gast, horn.

Then Osmo Vänskä, an accomplished clarinetist in addition to being a great conductor, played the clarinet in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s beautiful Clarinet Concerto in A Major (K 622), which was composed shortly before Mozart’s death in 1791. Vänskä was backed by 18 members of the Orchestra.[3]

Osmo and Tony

audience DSC02485

 

 

 

 

Above are photographs of Vänskä playing the concerto and of the audience of over 900 in the beautiful and modern sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina, Minnesota.

The program ended with Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky’s difficult String Sextet in D minor (Op.70). It was titled “Souvenir de Florence” because the composer sketched one of the work’s principal themes while visiting Florence, Italy in 1890. The violinists were Erin Keefe and Cecilia Belcher; violaists, Tom Turner and Sabrina Thatcher; and cellists, Ross and Rapier. Ross thought the piece might be Tchaikovsky’s greatest.

The concert had principal support from St. John’s Episcopal Church of Minneapolis and Our Lady of Grace along with 24 other Christian, Jewish and Islamic congregations from the Twin Cities.

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[1] Royce,  Minnesota Orchestra musicians unite for concert to aid Syrian refugees, StarTribune (Dec. 23, 2015); Program, Chamber Music Concert for Refugees Inside Syria (Jan. 3, 2016).

[2] ARC, Syria Relief.  As explained in a prior post, one of the international legal requirements for refugee status is an individual’s being outside his or her home country. Therefore, the beneficiaries of this concert, Syrians who have not left their own country, are technically not “refugees,” but rather “internally displaced people” or “IDP’s” in international relief jargon. But they are just as deserving of our compassion as those Syrians who have fled their country, perhaps more so because those who stay are trying to live in the midst of the war.

[3] A prior post described Vânskä’s playing the clarinet in a Havana music club after the Orchestra’s second concert in Cuba last May. Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba trip Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2015).