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.
The Inspirations for the Tour
There are at least three events that inspired this tour.
- The Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba
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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
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.”
 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).
 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).
 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).