This Minnesota Orchestra concert didn’t start with the wave of a conductor’s baton. Instead, a man’s voice rang out:
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
A dozen drummers began beating an African rhythm. Six girls danced down the aisles of Orchestra Hall. A stream of young people followed, hoisting colorful flags. Their procession brought South Africa’s flag onstage, where it joined two others representing the United States and Minnesota.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, are we?” joked the evening’s host, Brian Newhouse of Classical MPR, after the drums had quieted and the applause died down.
Soon, the Minnesota Orchestra will tour South Africa — becoming the first professional U.S. orchestra to do so. But first, South Africa came to Minnesota.
Over two days at Orchestra Hall, the orchestra celebrated the 100th birthday of the late Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s most famous statesman and freedom fighter, with speeches and song. Those songs ran the gamut from traditional to modern, from symphonies to protest anthems. It kicked off with Friday’s flag ceremony, followed by the national anthems of both South Africa and the United States. On Saturday, the orchestra’s International Day of Music offered free performances by groups including Insingizi, a powerful vocal trio from Zimbabwe; and 29:11, a gospel group of young Cape Town vocalists and instrumentalists that, in recent months, has hopped from church to church across the Twin Cities.
Saturday evening’s concert paired Beethoven’s beloved Ninth Symphony, including its famous choral finale, “Ode to Joy,” with the world premiere of a piece the orchestra will highlight on its tour: “Harmonia Ubuntu,” by South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen, which features a soprano singing text from Mandela’s speeches and writings.
"Ubunto" is a philosophy that says "my humanity is tied to your humanity," said Ndodana-Breen, who flew to Minnesota for the premiere. "It teaches people to reinforce each other's individual dignity and ... to live together in a form of harmony.
"It's a very simple concept, but I think we live in times where it's very trying to implement."
The fanfare previewed the orchestra’s two-week, five-city tour in early August, which will include an Aug. 17 concert in Soweto, “the spiritual home” of the anti-apartheid struggle, as Ndodana-Breen put it. Between playing in city halls and churches, the musicians will work with and rehearse alongside young musicians, an experience they raved about during the orchestra’s historic trip to Cuba in 2015.
With this tour, orchestra leaders wanted to let Minnesotans in on a bit of that magic.
“After Cuba, we realized that for the orchestra, it was this amazing experience — but the community wasn’t as involved,” said Beth Kellar-Long, vice president of orchestra administration. “And so when we started planning the South Africa trip, we really wanted a way to have it be part of the community here, as well.”
‘A world in harmony’
Friday night’s “Celebrating Mandela at 100” program was fully focused on the country’s first black president, who would have been 100 on July 18. In videos and speeches, Minnesotans heard from those who knew him, calling him Madiba, his clan name, and Tata, which means “father.”
“I never thought five years after my father has passed away he would be celebrated thousands of miles away in Minnesota,” said Makaziwe Mandela, Mandela’s eldest daughter. With a smile that echoed her father’s, she described the sacrifices Mandela and his family made in fighting to end apartheid — a fight that landed Mandela in prison for 27 years.
But on this musical occasion, on the eve of an orchestral tour, she also described what music meant to her father as an activist and a man.
“Music became a weapon against apartheid,” she said. Songs helped tell her father’s story, educating young people about the anti-apartheid movement.
More broadly, music offered Mandela a vision of “a world in harmony, a world governed by empathy and compassion and love,” she said.
“I watched him play classical music because it calmed his nerves in the most difficult of times,” Makaziwe told the audience. “I have seen my father tear up as he listened to Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.”
A choir of 150, wearing an array of colorful shirts, packed the Orchestra Hall stage. Most were members of the Minnesota Chorale, which will send about 50 singers to South Africa for the second half of the orchestra’s tour. But there were also singers from local church choirs and from 29:11, whose South African members offered coaching on click consonants and the complexities of a handful of African languages, including the Bantu language of Xhosa. In return, Chorale members helped everyone learn German for Saturday’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth.
“It’s been a journey for all of us,” said Kathy Saltzman Romey, the Minnesota Chorale’s artistic director. “Everybody brings their area of expertise, and everyone is learning from one another.”
Brian Bogan sings tenor with the Shiloh Temple International Ministries Church Choir. In recent years, that choir has teamed up with the Minnesota Orchestra, singing as part of its “Send Me Hope” concert last year. Many of that choir’s members learn music by ear, he said, rather than by reading sheet music. “Personally, I haven’t read music since fifth grade,” Bogan said, laughing.
So the first rehearsals were intimidating. In addition to reading music, he’d have to sing in German and a few African languages.
“When I got there and saw how challenging it would be, honestly, I was going to quit,” Bogan said. “A little fear kicked in.”
But he stuck it out. He worked with choral members more experienced in those other languages. He studied a cheat sheet. In the end, singing together and alongside the orchestra has been a beautiful experience, Bogan continued, full of emotion.
“That’s the thing with music, sometimes you don’t even have to know the words,” he said. “The music will just hit you.”