JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – A choir from Minnesota and a choir from South Africa sang together Monday night for the first time. It felt, somehow, like the hundredth.
Arriving this week to join the Minnesota Orchestra’s five-city tour of South Africa, about 50 members of the Minnesota Chorale met their South African counterparts, the Gauteng Choristers, in a Johannesburg school auditorium.
They hugged one another, exchanged phone numbers and practiced pronouncing one another’s names. They alternated seats, so that the two choirs were completely mixed. Then, they sang.
Together, their voices sounded rich, resonant.
“Wonderful,” conductor Sidwell Mhlongo said, simply, after the first tune — the South Africa national anthem. The singers turned to one another, smiling and whispering.
Mid-rehearsal, Mhlongo admitted that “we didn’t know what to expect, actually.” Mhlongo, who has led the internationally acclaimed, Johannesburg-based choir since 2000, noted that “when you go into a partnership, you’re never sure whether it’s going to work or not.
“As you can see, it’s magic all the way.”
Each choir brings its own expertise to the program they’ll perform with the orchestra Friday in Soweto and Saturday in Johannesburg. Friday’s concert will be broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio (7 p.m., 99.5 FM or classicalmpr.org).
They’re singing the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or “Ode to Joy.” The Minnesota Chorale has that German text on lock. Then, they’ll perform African songs in local languages — such as “Ruri,” a creation song written by South African composer Michael Mosoeu Moerane and sung in Sotho.
In Minnesota, the chorale took pronunciation tips from 29:11, a South African gospel ensemble that toured the state this summer and is also singing in the mass choir. That helped. But arriving in South Africa changed how the Minnesotans experience the African songs, they said.
Their movements got looser. Their dynamics bigger. Their pronunciations more precise.
“It’s one thing to learn the music of a country and perform it to the best of your ability,” said Maya Tester, 55, a Minneapolis resident and soprano with the Minnesota Chorale. “But then to join voices of people of that culture …
“The pieces we performed in Minnesota took on a completely different character when we sang them here, and when we followed the lead of the Gauteng Choristers.”
That choir is made up of singers in their 20s and 30s. The Minnesota Chorale — as Mhlongo pointed out during rehearsal, to much laughter — averages a few decades older.
“I’m a good 30 years older,” Tester said. “I’m from a different culture. We were raised in different ways.” But when the sopranos began singing together, “there was just an instant connection.”
Before Monday’s rehearsal, soprano Goitsemang Lehobye, an alumnus of the Gauteng Choristers, didn’t think she’d sing with the choirs that night. Lehobye has been performing with the Minnesota Orchestra as a soloist; her soaring soprano is a centerpiece of the piece commissioned for this tour, “Harmonia Ubuntu.” So she was in town and wanted to say hello to her old conductor and friends.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Lehobye said, watching the groups together. “The Americans had to learn the clicks and things like that. And the Africans were busy doing their German. It’s like merging two different things to become one.”
By the third piece, Lehobye had settled in beside Tester, singing and swaying.
“Are you singing with us at the concert?” Tester asked her.
Lehobye shook her head, laughing.
“You could!” Tester said. “There’s a space right next to me.”