Minnesota Orchestra Honors Nelson Mandela By Bringing Music To South Africa

Aug 16, 2018
Originally published on August 16, 2018 5:54 pm

The Minnesota Orchestra will play one of its most important gigs of the year this month — at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, South Africa. In doing so, it will become the first major U.S. orchestra to visit that city. The performance is part of a year of celebrations recognizing the centennial of Nelson Mandela's birth. It makes sense for the orchestra to play in the community central to the freedom struggle which brought down apartheid.

Today, the church seems to radiate peace, but Regina Mundi caretaker Danny Dube says this place experienced horrible violence. He points to bullet-holes preserved in the walls and says in the 1970s anti-apartheid activists met here and were attacked by police officers.

"They started throwing in tear gas canisters, as well as shooting," Dube says. "The problem was they did shoot from the outside as well as inside the church."

Regina Mundi became an early site for the country's post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission.

Maki Mandela, Nelson Mandela's oldest daughter, knows that her father saw music as a blessing. "It is through music that we express our pain, our anger, our joy," she says.

African history professor Dr. Helena Pohlandt-McCormick wrote her doctoral thesis on Regina Mundi. She bought tickets for the Soweto show despite living two hours away by air. People in Soweto can't afford concert tickets, she explains, and most know little about orchestral music.

"Classical music is associated with Europe," McCormick says. "And in the sort of decolonization there is a turn against the kinds of arts that are associated with the west, or the north, or with Europe."

Simply put, orchestral music is still seen as a white artform. This is something Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä acknowledges. The tour is his idea. A few years back, Vänskä worked with the South African National Youth Orchestra Foundation and was impressed by the musicians' talent. He hopes to build an audience for them and other orchestras, few of whom ever come to South Africa.

Composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen wrote Harmonia Ubuntu for the Minnesota musicians. The Orchestra will play the piece, among others, on Aug. 17. "These are amazing and courageous acts, I think, of public diplomacy and public engagement, especially in the world that we live in now, which is so fractured," he says.

Tilda Smith, a first-time classical attendee, heard the piece at the opening concert in Cape Town on Aug. 10. "It's almost like you could see movies, or the sea, or nature, and everything flowing in front of you," Smith says. "So peaceful. It's beautiful."

"Shosholoza" is often called South Africa's second national anthem and while orchestral music is not a significant part of the country's culture, choral music is. The Johannesburg-based Gauteng Choristers will join members of the Minnesota Chorale and the orchestra for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (from the Ninth Symphony) for the Aug. 17 performance. The soloists will all be South African. They will also sing a series of South African songs with the full orchestra.

While there were many black faces at the performances in Cape Town and Durban, the audience was still mainly white. Soweto will be different. To make sure as many people as possible can enjoy the music, the Minnesota Orchestra has arranged for free tickets and money for transportation to the shows.

Maki Mandela says that Soweto is still a place of great poverty, "But it is also a place of hope in many ways because if you could survive the dark brutal days of apartheid, and people can still be living today, it just shows that you can't conquer the human spirit."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Minnesota Orchestra plays a special gig tomorrow night in Soweto, South Africa. It is the first major U.S. orchestra to visit that city. Their performance is part of a year celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's birth. Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports now on the story and hopes behind the concert.

EUAN KERR, BYLINE: Nelson Mandela's oldest daughter, Maki Mandela, says her father saw music as a blessing.

MAKI MANDELA: It is through music that we express our pain, our anger, our joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BONGANI NDODANA-BREEN'S "HARMONIA UBUNTU")

KERR: The Minnesota Orchestra will play this piece, "Harmonia Ubuntu," tomorrow night at the Regina Mundi Church in the heart of Soweto.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BONGANI NDODANA-BREEN'S "HARMONIA UBUNTU")

KERR: On a cold, sunny afternoon, the church seems to radiate peace. But caretaker Danny Dube says this place experienced horrible violence. He points to bullet holes preserved in the walls and says in the 1970s, anti-apartheid activists met here and were attacked by police officers.

DANNY DUBE: They started throwing in tear gas canisters as well as shooting. Now, the problem was they did shoot from the outside as well as from inside the church.

KERR: Regina Mundi became an early site for the country's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

HELENA MCCORMICK: It's a remarkable move to have a concert in Soweto and then at Regina Mundi.

KERR: African History Professor Helena McCormick wrote her doctoral thesis on Regina Mundi. She bought tickets for the Soweto show despite living two hours away by air. Speaking via Skype from near Cape Town, she says people in Soweto can't afford concert tickets, and most know little about orchestral music.

MCCORMICK: Classical music is associated with Europe. And in the sort of decolonization, there is a turn against the kind of arts that are associated with the West or with the North or with Europe.

KERR: Simply put, it's still seen as a white art form, which is something Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vanska acknowledges. The tour was his idea. A few years back, he worked with the South African National Youth Orchestra and was impressed by the musicians' talent. He hopes to build an audience for them and other orchestras, few of whom ever come to South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BONGANI NDODANA-BREEN'S "HARMONIA UBUNTU")

KERR: Composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen wrote "Harmonia Ubuntu" for the Minnesota Orchestra tour.

BONGANI NDODANA-BREEN: These are amazing and courageous acts I think of public diplomacy and public engagement, especially in the world that we live in now which is so fractured.

KERR: For his composition, Ndodana-Breen set the words of Nelson Mandela to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BONGANI NDODANA-BREEN'S "HARMONIA UBUNTU")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing, unintelligible).

KERR: Tilda Smith, a first-time classical attendee, heard the piece at the opening concert in Cape Town.

TILDA SMITH: It was, like - almost you can see movies or the sea and nature and everything flowing in front of you so peaceful. It's beautiful, really beautiful.

KERR: The orchestra also played Beethoven, Bernstein, and Sibelius but got its biggest reaction to an encore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF "SHOSHOLOZA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Zulu).

(CHEERING)

KERR: "Shosholoza" is often called South Africa's second national anthem. And while orchestral music is not a significant part of the country's culture, choral music is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF "SHOSHOLOZA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Shosholoza...

KERR: The Johannesburg-based Gauteng Choristers will join members of the Minnesota Chorale and the orchestra for Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" tomorrow night. The soloists will all be South African. They will also sing a series of South African songs with the full orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing, unintelligible).

KERR: While there were many black faces at the performances in Cape Town and Durban, the audience was still mainly white. Soweto will be different. Maki Mandela says it's still a place of great poverty.

MANDELA: But it's also a place of hope in many ways because if you could survive the dark, brutal days of apartheid and people can still be living today, it just shows that you can't conquer the human spirit.

KERR: And to make sure as many people as possible can enjoy what her father called the blessing of music, the Minnesota Orchestra has arranged for free tickets and money for transportation to the shows. For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr in Johannesburg, South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing, unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.