CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – The Minnesota Orchestra is touring South Africa in Nelson Mandela’s name. So it made sense that the first concert took place at Cape Town’s City Hall, a place so important to Mandela’s legacy that a bronze statue of him stands on its balcony.
During a rousing, sold-out show Friday, the former president’s words, sung by a soaring soprano, once again hung in the air.
With big plans and carefully packed instruments, the Minnesota Orchestra arrived here this week to start an 11-day, five-city journey across South Africa — the first professional U.S. orchestra to tour the country. People packed the grand, honey-colored City Hall, its interior so recently renovated that the white paint still looked wet.
Surrounding the orchestra on all sides, the crowd cheered the new piece “Harmonia Ubuntu,” its composer — whom music director Osmo Vänskä pointed out in the crowd — and soprano Goitsemang Lehobye.
“It was exuberant,” Ndodana-Breen said afterward, between hugging friends and accepting toasts. The orchestra sounds different in this hall, in this country, he added. “It’s so bright.”
Two Minnesotans in town for the tour — Dr. Arthur Horowitz and Fran, his wife — approached, wide-eyed.
“I must have your autograph,” Fran Horowitz said, opening the program to Ndodana-Breen’s biography and handing him a pen.
Moved by Mandela’s legacy
In their short time in Cape Town, the musicians, a few carrying dog-eared copies of Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” encountered his legacy around every corner.
Some visited museums grappling with the history of apartheid, against which he famously fought. A few dozen peered through the bars of his prison cell.
On a harbor cruise, trumpet player Manny Laureano saw the boat that brought Mandela back to the mainland when he was freed in 1990.
“And now, here we are, going to play in the space where he gave his first speech after being released,” he said just before the concert. “Those are all very powerful things to absorb.
“I think that everybody in the orchestra is going to have, in the middle of all this excitement, this wonderful solemn moment understanding what a big deal this is.”
Before arriving in Cape Town, the orchestra had performed Monday in London at the prestigious BBC Proms festival. Before the encore, Vänskä told the crowd about the orchestra’s upcoming tour: “We are honored to be welcomed by the people of South Africa. And therefore, the next piece pays tribute to the great musical tradition of that country.”
Then the orchestra performed “Shosholoza,” a traditional miners’ song that Mandela sang while doing hard labor. It has become a kind of unofficial national anthem.
On the London stage, the Minnesota musicians belted it out.
A surprise at dinner
At a welcome dinner Wednesday night, guests grabbed flutes of sparkling wine and paused to have their faces painted. A woman with a colorful head wrap and a steady hand flicked black, red and white dots and designs around their eyes.
After a short chat with Laureano, she painted three footprints on his forehead.
“It’s personal,” he said, smiling, when asked its meaning.
Then the speeches started.
“I think we should toast whoever it was who was wise enough to invite Osmo years ago to conduct the [South African National] Youth Orchestra,” said Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the orchestra’s board chair, from the stage. “Because that person really created the dream in Osmo’s head that we must come and we must make music and make the world a better place through musical understanding. “So thank you, Osmo, for letting us be a part of your dream.”
Before the dinner’s 14 courses began, a surprise: The South African Youth Choir took the stage with robust voices and driving djembe rhythms.
Two courses in, the restaurant’s house ensemble emerged in patterned, gilded fabrics, dancing, singing and playing marimbas. They performed again, four courses in. Then again and again.
After dessert, the house band returned once more — and struck up “Shosholoza,” the song the orchestra had played in London.
The room erupted. Many musicians — their faces painted to match the musicians onstage — stood, clapped and sang along.
Soon, at Carlson Nelson’s urging, everyone in the room was on their feet. “Hey, we know that one,” second violinist Michael Sutton said, laughing.
Free tickets for kids
Just before the start of Friday night’s concert, a dozen kids stood off to the side of the City Hall lobby, playing and laughing. They were here for their very first orchestra performance.
The children, in grades four through eight, play marimbas together as part of MusicWorks, a nonprofit that intervenes in the lives of kids in Cape Town’s marginalized neighborhoods, said Mark Williams, its program coordinator.
Normally, they couldn’t afford tickets to a concert like this, where most seats cost 600 rand, or more than $40 U.S.
“It’s very expensive!” Williams said. But the Twin Cities-based Medtronic Foundation, which is helping to underwrite the tour, gave the group the tickets for free.
The concert gets these kids “off their phones, their TVs, exploring life,” said Andile Siyo, the group’s other chaperone and an instrument maker. And it exposes them to greater opportunities in music, he added.
This was a first for Williams and Siyo, as well. The middle-aged men had never been to a symphony orchestra concert, either.
The Minnesota Orchestra began with a pair of national anthems — South Africa’s first, then the United States’. It closed with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — perhaps the world’s most famous.
After a few standing ovations, Vänskä turned, for the first encore, to Finnish favorite Jean Sibelius, his countryman. But for the second, he returned to the podium with a surprise.
A single bass drum echoed through the hall. The beat built. Marimba. Trumpets and trombones.
Suddenly, the musicians sang: “Shosholoza!”
The crowd erupted. They laughed, they clapped, they pulled out their cellphones. Then many of them sang along.