Enjoying music freely is not something that we think can be controlled. Try and take a minute and think about what that would be like… it sounds like a hypothetical from a Jane Elliott experiment! A little over a quarter century ago, those were the circumstances in South Africa. Practicing or listening to classical music as a colored person was highly frowned upon and left a gap in a generation of artists.
The Minnesota Orchestra traveled to South Africa in August of 2018 to help bridge that gap. The trip was documented in an upcoming hour-long special, Music for Mandela: Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa, by Twin Cities Public Television for the 10th season premiere of their weekly series, Minnesota Original (MNO).
The trip itself was the brainchild of Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vänskä. After visiting Johannesburg a few years ago while working with the South African National Youth Orchestra, Vänskä wondered how children performed at their highest level after learning they were living in shanty towns nearby.
While no American orchestra has ever toured in South Africa, he made the decision to set out and make the 170-person orchestra and chorale mobile.
While this is nothing new, since the orchestra toured Cuba three years earlier, this trip quickly became an example of the power of partnership. Partnering with Classical Movements to handle tour schedule and cultural exchange collaborations, Brendan Adams of 29:11, a gospel singer from South Africa, helped prepare the chorale with word pronunciation, and media coverage from Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), Star Tribune and MNO.
Stepping back from the physical feat at hand, the trip carried a symbolic message of joy and unity, some of the strongest characteristics of Nelson Mandela Coming on the heels of Mandela’s centennial birth celebration, they drove home those points as they toured Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Soweto and Johannesburg over a two-week period.
They performed in each location and wanted the performance to be open to everyone, despite the fact that social structures throughout the country, during the apartheid era, have long signaled that classical music was for the whites.
Vänskä told MPR, “I couldn’t be happier if we can get people to listen to us, black people, like all ages, all colors.” The orchestra offered subsidized tickets and some commuting expenses, such as money for gas or taxis, to encourage people to attend.
In each location, performances ranged from Beethoven to Bernstein and also included Vänskä -favorite Sibelius. A specially commissioned piece composed by Bongani Ndodana-Breen titled Harmonia Ubuntu drew upon speech and writings from Nelson Mandela. It was performed by South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye.
Clips from the MNO film directly showed how the South Africans showed their appreciation for the music by rocking in the crowd and later rising to their feet and dancing during the performance. Something not normally seen in American orchestras halls.
They also shared moments and stories when artists were interacting and playing alongside aspiring artists in the community. They were able to inspire and mentor young artist with simple challenges, such as making race car sounds with a trombone.
Music for Mandela: Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa was half inspiration, half hopefulness. Music has a lot more do to with diplomacy and politics than one ever may think; It shows people can still come together for a common cause no matter their history, especially since many of the places documented in the film are still sensitive from the Apartheid era.
Seeing the artists and communities connecting with each other brought home the message that we all speak the language of music.
Minnesota Original’s Music for Mandela: Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa premieres Sunday, May 5 at 10 p.m. on TPT.