The Minnesota Orchestra is headed to South Africa this summer, becoming the first professional U.S. orchestra to tour that country.
The orchestra announced Thursday that during the 11-day tour in August, which will honor the centenary of Nelson Mandela, the orchestra will stop in five cities, performing in colleges and churches and rehearsing alongside students.
"It's not just a tour; it's not just the music," said Kevin Smith, the orchestra's CEO and president. "It's using the music … to capture the spirit of Mandela as a leader, as a moral guiding light."
Led by music director Osmo Vänskä, the tour echoes the orchestra's historic trip to Cuba in 2015 — the first by a major U.S. orchestra after relations thawed.
After that "transformative" tour, musicians and leaders "definitely wanted to explore beyond the usual European and Asian venues," said Smith. That interest connected with an earlier trip: Vänskä had been to South Africa in 2014 to conduct the young musicians of the South African National Youth Orchestra and "came back raving about the whole experience," Smith noted.
"It speaks very well of the Minnesota Orchestra that it is, for the second time now, using touring as a way to put a stake in the ground, to say we have a special role to play in the wider world," said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. "To look at touring as a way to open up connectivity to another country — particularly one where we have not had that kind of musical relationship before — puts them in the forefront."
This "distinctive kind of tour will capture the attention of peer orchestras across the country," he predicted.
The tour will feature South African, American and European music. Along with members of the Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers, a South African ensemble, the orchestra will perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, as well as African songs in local languages. The concerts will feature a piece commissioned for the occasion: "Harmonia Ubuntu," by South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen.
That piece "uses a lot of African techniques and conjures up various African traditional instruments and rituals," Ndodana-Breen said Thursday by e-mail. The work's text is based on speeches and writings of Mandela, "one of the greatest peacemakers of our time."
Ndodana-Breen praised the Minnesota Orchestra for reaching out to Africa with its tour. "This is a historic and exciting moment for us in Africa," he said. "Never has an American orchestra come to Africa. This incredible gesture says a lot about the power of the arts, especially music, being able to affirm our common humanity."
The world premiere of "Harmonia Ubuntu" will occur here in Minnesota. Before leaving the country, the orchestra will bring South Africa here. During its annual Sommerfest, South African soloists will travel to Minnesota to perform during a series of 10 concerts featuring the same themes of peace, freedom and reconciliation. More details about those shows, from July 13 to Aug. 1, will emerge in March.
An anonymous couple has donated more than $2 million toward the tour's cost of $2.5 million, Smith said. Businesses have also contributed.
Logistically, it's a tricky trip. Because U.S. orchestras don't tour Africa, there's no infrastructure for such a project. Planning concerts there requires a lot of groundwork, Smith said, especially when trying to attract diverse audiences.
Time in the five cities — Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Soweto and Johannesburg — will include residencies and side-by-side rehearsals with students. Such musical exchanges and school visits were key parts of the orchestra's Cuba tour, which helped rebuild relationships between musicians and management after a bitter, 16-month lockout. Those experiences "transformed the relationship between how we interact with one another," Smith said, "so it's not about labor versus management but a collaboration."
During the contract negotiations that followed, both sides agreed to language that would allow the musicians to participate in such exchanges on future tours.
"Cuba really helped define that," Smith said. "South Africa builds on that."