Minnesota Singer’s Celebration of Minnesota Orchestra’s Soweto Concert

Scott Chamberlain, a member of the Minnesota Chorale, in a MINNPOST article has celebrated the August 17 concert in Soweto’s Regina Mundi Church by a combined choir that included the Chorale accompanied by the Minnesota Orchestra. [1]

Before the concert, Scott’s Minnesota friend, Mariellen Jacobson, met Teresa, “a beautiful, 80-something” [South African] woman.. . . and learned that she was a parishioner of the church. She spoke passionately about the past, and what it was like living through those tumultuous times. In the student uprisings of 1976, some of the young schoolboys fled to the church to escape the police’s bullets and tear gas. The police followed them right into the church and fired live ammunition inside the sanctuary.” [Teresa said you could still see the bullet holes.] ‘Look up at the crucifix. You’ll see that Jesus has three fingers on his right hand and five fingers on his left hand. Yes, one of the bullets had hit the sculpture.’ “And there it was. This brought it home just how real these events were … this wasn’t something for the history book, but part of the life story of real people.”

Scott added that “Soweto was ready. Long before the concert got under way, a substantial crowd had arrived at the church’s gates, with an excited air of anticipation. Many had never been to a live classical concert before and jumped at a chance to hear how one sounded. Perhaps best of all, a large number of young children were on hand, as Minnesotan Jill Chamberlain discovered. Cousins Tebogo (age 11) and Keo (age 10) were brought by their mother/aunt Josephine. They were seated next to Jill, and once settled, they cheerfully drilled her about concert protocol, how the music would sound … and asked such important questions as what kind of restaurants there were in America and how Americans made their porridge.”

“All in all, excited concertgoers overwhelmed the ticket takers at the door, forcing the concert to start 20 minutes late.”

Scott continued, “the singers of the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers and [the South African vocal group] 29:11[named after Jeremiah 29:11]  filled the aisles and belted out the South African national anthem. We were loud, but we were almost certainly drowned out by the 1,300 voices of audience who added their voices to ours. It was a moment of welcome, pride and shared exuberance.”

“The middle-aged [South African] woman next to me was wonderfully fun to sing with — she had a voice that would make any singing group proud. And best of all, she lost none of her exuberance when the orchestra followed up with the Star-Spangled Banner. She didn’t know the words, but effortlessly switched to ‘da-da-da,’ sung with an enormous grin. She loved it. I rarely get hugs handshakes from audience members during an actual performance, but this audience member was giving them out aplenty.”

When the South African soprano, Goitsemang Lehobye “boldly strode out to center stage in gorgeous traditional dress, [to sing with the Orchestra the South African composition for this very tour, Harmonia Ubuntu], the audience went absolutely crazy. I was so, so happy about the inclusion of this piece. It was good, and deserves wider performance. But more than that, it proudly demonstrated that this concert — and by extension, this entire tour — wasn’t about simply performing western art music at local audiences, but actually engaging audiences and performers alike in a shared musical exchange. It showed curiosity about other music  and a willingness to learn about it and embrace it. It showed respect.”

“And the audience absolutely loved it.”

At the conclusion of this piece, “Goitsemang and Osmo [Vänskä] were greeted with an ear-splitting roar that went way beyond appreciation … it showed love. And from that moment, the audience and musicians were one. We were in this together.”

The Orchestra and combined choir then performed the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the Choral Symphony). As Chamberlain said, “it is famously one of the most athletic, brutal works to sing in the standard repertoire. But there it was. It was the perfect piece to sing at Regina Mundi — a musical celebration of our shared humanity and universal joy. And the combined voices of the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers, and 29:11 made sure that Beethoven’s song of joy shook Heaven itself. . . . If the audience was fired up before, they were absolutely on fire at the end of the Beethoven.”

“And with that, the concert really got going. Next, Vänskä programmed . . . [four] South African songs that cranked up the excitement even further.”

Akhala Amaqhude Amabili is a setting of two Zulu folk songs, linked by a shared motive of a rooster call (Kikilikigi! in Zulu) to rouse up the community and get ready for the day. The audience loved it.”

The next piece by the combined choir [conducted by Xolani Mootane], an a cappella South African song, Bawo Tixo Somandla, “brought the house down. Back in the 1970s, the work was originally written as an anti-apartheid protest song, asking God the insistent question, ‘Father, God omnipotent, what have we done? Why do we kill each other like this?’. . . This was a work incredibly important to me — singing that song, while I could look around the church and literally see bullet holes left behind by paramilitary raids, was powerful beyond words. The audience had already started singing along when Xolani turned on the podium and gestured for the crowd to rise to their feet. They did so with a roar of voices and began dancing with us. It was a musical spectacle that will always, always stay with me, as we together turned that song into a cry for unity and an end to violence.”

The next song, Ruri (Truly) by Michael Mosoeu Moerane, was gentler, “but no less celebratory song . . .  celebrating God’s creation, where all things—even ferocious crocodiles — are part of a harmonious whole. It is a much-loved, South African favorite.”

“The roof was then blown off yet again with . . .[the final programmed South African song] Usilethela Uxolo, a festive song honoring Nelson Mandela based on a work by South African jazz legend Stompie Mavi. This time the audience needed no invitation — as soon as the chorus came in and started dancing on stage, the audience followed suit. It was wonderful, crazy, musical bedlam, with everyone onstage and offstage joining in the celebration. My God what a party! Seriously… World Cup soccer crowds are more reserved. The roar that filled that church when we were done about shook Regina Mundi off its foundation.”

For an encore, the Orchestra “launched into Shosholoza, a beloved standard that functions as a second national anthem for South Africa. The orchestra players set aside their instruments and belted out the first verse through their voices alone, to the rousing support of the audience. When the chorus came in, bedlam broke out all over again. Dancing! Singing! Bigger dancing, and bigger singing! When it was over we got the biggest roar of them all — and that’s saying something.”

When Chamberlain and the other Minnesota singers thought the concert had ended, some of the male singers in the Gauteng Choristers “started to belt out a song of their own. Soon, all the South African singers caught the tune, and in voices again geared to shake the earth and rattle the heavens, began singing and dancing us off the stage in a completely unscripted kind of exit music, to the continued cheers of the audience. It was remarkable. The orchestra members, in the process of putting their instruments away, stopped with wide-eyed amazement and dived for their cellphones to snap pictures.”

“We in the Chorale had no idea about what the words were, but hey … when we find ourselves in a midst of a musical after-party, we learn fast and join right in. Soon we were singing as well, slowly working our way off stage. But the singing didn’t stop. To our astonishment, our South African peers enveloped us and began marching with us outside the building, and around the church in a musical parade that lasted about 15 minutes. People on the outside rushed forward and joined in the song, reaching in through the fence to give us high fives as we danced across the grounds.”

Scott concluded, “I have never felt so much joy, so much pure, unadulterated joy. Music did that. Music brought us together, wiped out any petty distinctions among us, and for a moment made us one, wonderful family. The universal joy envisioned in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy became real — right there in Soweto.”

Thank you, Scott Chamberlain, for this enthralling and inspiring report.

=========================================

[1] Chamberlain, The Minnesota Orchestra’s Extraordinary Experience in Soweto, MINNPOST (Aug. 24, 2018). There also are great photographs of this concert in Ross, Embracing the soul of Soweto,as Minnesota Orchestra finds music is universal language, StarTribune (Aug. 24, 2018). A recording of the concert is available at MPRClassical FM radio. See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Nelson Mandela’s Connections with Soweto (Aug. 22, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Soweto) (Aug. 24, 2018).

 

Minnesota Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba Garners National Recognition

The Minnesota Orchestra’s May 2015 visit to Cuba was ranked as one of the Best Classical Music Events of 2015 by the New York Times. [1]

According to the Times’ Michael Cooper, “It was not just the mojitos or the Beethoven and Prokofiev, or the fact that an American orchestra was at the vanguard of the nation’s rapprochement with Cuba that made the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour of Havana in May a high point of the year. It was also the way the quickly-put-together tour signaled that the orchestra, which had been brought to the brink of death during a bitter 16-month lockout that ended in 2014, was back and was thinking big. . . . The Havana tour was one of those hopeful moments [for classical music] this year.”

This accolade reminded me of my listening to the Orchestra’s two concerts live from Havana on Minnesota Public Radio with tears of joy in my eyes. Arranging those live broadcasts itself was an amazing technological accomplishment by MPR and many others.

Havana audience

One of the pieces at the Friday concert was Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez. Later I learned that there was tension between Fernandez and the Orchestra’s Music Director, Osmo Vanska. In rehearsals Fernandez had his own sound technicians, who made the piano sound louder than the orchestra. Naturally Vanska did not like this and had his sound technicians manipulate the pianist’s system so that it would not sound louder than the Orchestra’s. (To the right is a photograph of the audience at Friday’s concert.)

The Saturday concert, to my surprise, opened with the Cuban and U.S. national anthems. Subsequently a violinist in the Orchestra told me that minutes before that concert he looked again at his music for the Cuban National Anthem and noticed it said, “Copyright 1952, U.S. Army.” He panicked, thinking they might not be playing the correct national anthem, and immediately took the sheet music to the Spanish-English interpreter assigned to the Orchestra. Fortunately she could read music and confirmed it was the right one.

Cuban anthem

A few minutes later at the start of the concert, the violinist said, Vanska had all the musicians stand and face the audience while motioning for the audience to do likewise. The audience did not know what was happening and only gradually rose to their feet. When the music started, the Cubans in the audience initially did not recognize their own anthem, but soon started singing with tears in their eyes. After it was finished, they were even more surprised to hear the Orchestra play “The Start-Spangled Banner” with the Americans in the audience lustily singing the words. (To the left is a photograph by Travis Anderson of the Orchestra playing the Cuban national anthem.)

These concerts were not the only activities for the Orchestra’s musicians in Cuba. They “played with students in a number of settings . . . [and] marveled at the high quality of their play in spite of poor instruments. The Minnesotans brought small gifts for the students, who have trouble obtaining basic items: rosin for the string players, who rarely get to change the horsehair on their bows, and mouthpieces for the brass players.”[2]

Ross

In one of those sessions with Cuban students, for example, Anthony Ross, Minnesota’s principal cellist, played the students a Mark Summer piece that he said was popular with cello students in America. Then they broke up into small groups, and Ross had a young Cuban cellist use Ross’ beautiful cello. (To the right is a photograph of Ross and the Cuban student.) At a class on conducting, Vanska told one student that his hands were “very natural” and fielded questions from a recent graduate who wanted advice on how to conduct Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.”[3]

Vanska clarient

After Saturday night’s concert, Vanska and some of the Orchestra members went out to Habana Café, where Orquesta Aragón, a Cuban charanga group, was playing. The Cuban group soon was joined by some of the Minnesotans to play “Dos Gardenias,” the bolero that Ibrahim Ferrer sang with the Buena Vista Social Club. Charles Lazarus, a Minnesota trumpeter, told the crowd that there was “a very iconic trumpet solo at the beginning,” of the piece, but that tonight it would be played on the clarinet by Vanska..“By early Sunday morning he was playing clarinet in a decidedly more tropical vein as members of his orchestra and the Orquesta Aragón — think of them as El Conjunto de Minneapolis, perhaps — played a mixture of jazz and Cuban music.” (To the left is a photograph of Vanska on clarinet with some of the Minnesota musicians and the Orquesta )[4]

Thanks, New York Times, for reminding us of this wonderful event for the Minnesota Orchestra. Bravo! Bravo!

================================================

[1] The Best Classical Music of 2015, N.Y. Times (Dec. 9, 2015). The Orchestra’s trip was discussed in previous posts: Minnesota Orchestra To Go to Cuba (Feb. 13, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week (May 11, 2015). See also Minnesota Orchestra, Cuba Tour Press and Broadcast InformationPhotos: A look back at the orchestra’s trip to Cuba, MPR (May 19, 2015).

[2] Cooper, Minnesota Orchestra, in Groundbreaking Cuba Tour, Sells Out House, N.Y. Times (May 16, 2015).

[3] Cooper, Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Trip Puts It in the Cultural Vanguard, N.Y. Times (May 14, 2015)

[4] Cooper, Fire and Ice: Minnesotans Join Orquesta Aragón in Havana, N.Y. Times (May 17, 2015)