SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA – If Cape Town is the pretty face of this stunning country, the locals told us, Johannesburg is its heart. And Soweto is its soul.
That soul makes itself plain in music.
Street buskers singing old labor tunes, bottle caps on their rubber boots marking the beat. A gospel song emanating from a corner bar in Kliptown at sunset. A choir singing freedom anthems in a Soweto church that gave refuge to anti-apartheid activists.
The Minnesota Orchestra nodded to those traditions with the music it chose for its Aug. 17 concert at that church, Regina Mundi — spiritual home of the struggle against apartheid — inviting a South African choir, soloists and conductor to a stage built bigger for the occasion. Together, they performed a kind of soundtrack to the stories told by the church’s colorful stained glass windows. Stories of protests, of violence, of celebration.
The orchestra was here to connect — powerfully, sometimes imperfectly — across lines drawn by knotty histories. It bused young musicians to downtown concerts. It paired up choirs with very different musical traditions. A violinist lent her centuries-old instrument to a 16-year-old boy, guiding the bow across its strings.
Music, they kept saying, is a universal language. But would it be?
At Regina Mundi, a thousand people, many of them lifelong Soweto residents, filled the pews and then sprang from them, singing, dancing and clapping to the South African standards.
Two women — choir members of this church and bosom friends — sang along. But they loved Beethoven, too. And when the orchestra performed a piece by one of its favorite composers, Finland’s Jean Sibelius, they raised their hands up, as if accepting an offering.