JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – The Minnesota Orchestra had wrapped up its encores Saturday night at Johannesburg City Hall. The conductor had left the stage.
But the two choirs from Minnesota and South Africa, who met just a week ago, weren’t done making music together.
As the orchestra filed offstage and concertgoers headed to the exits, the bass singers in the Minnesota Chorale and Johannesburg’s Gauteng Choristers started stepping, then singing. Audience members paused, turning toward the stage. Musicians, too, watched, instruments in hand. They hugged one another. A few cried.
It was the final concert of the Minnesota Orchestra’s history-making tour of South Africa. But it seemed too soon to go.
“Just to think about what this country’s been through — all that conflict and strife,” violinist Susie Park said moments afterward. “That people can stand up there and still give love like that is really powerful.”
She hadn’t been sure what to expect from this tour. “But it kind of shook me, all this energy and the audiences,” said Park, the orchestra’s first associate concertmaster.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, she said the experience reminded the orchestra of music’s pure power.
“It’s bigger than ourselves and it’s bigger than our own perspectives. We have to share it with the world. And that’s what we did here.”
They earned a big title — the first professional U.S. orchestra to visit South Africa — over the course of their 11-day tour of this stunning, complicated country. Playing in grand city halls, colorful classrooms and an iconic church in Soweto, the Minnesota Orchestra and its music director, Osmo Vänskä, performed some of the music they’re known for, including “En Saga,” by his fellow Finn, Jean Sibelius.
But they also dug into South African music. Each night, with the help of a marimba, they played “Shosholoza,” a kind of second national anthem here. They partnered with a mass choir made up of singers from the United States and South Africa. And at every concert, they performed “Harmonia Ubuntu,” a new work by Cape Town composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen that drew upon the words of South Africa’s first black president, the late Nelson Mandela.
Friday in Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic Church, the most buzzed-about concert of the tour, the crowd crowed over that piece’s soloist, South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye, who brought both power and lightness to Mandela’s message.
“This was not your orchestra coming to play for us,” Ndodana-Breen said. “Both musicians from South Africa and America were making music together. It was sharing.”
At that humble church — a refuge for black activists during the anti-apartheid movement — a diverse crowd packed the pews, dancing and singing along with the 145-voice mass choir. Ndodana-Breen was among them.
“It was wonderful to see the community embrace the orchestra like that,” he said. “The audience in Minnesota is in trouble … these musicians will expect the same response from now on. Now they know what an audience can do.
“We do apologize to the good people of Minnesota.”
‘A man of his word’
Four years ago, Vänskä vowed to return to South Africa with his orchestra in tow.
He had just led the South African National Youth Orchestra in “The Rite of Spring” at Regina Mundi, the spiritual home of the anti-apartheid struggle. And he was moved by the young musicians’ talent and tenacity.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I think my orchestra needs to come,’ ” said Sophia Welz, the youth orchestra’s managing director. She didn’t quite believe it: “There are often promises made by people in that moment,” she noted. And Welz knew well the challenges of bringing a professional U.S. orchestra here. “It’s an expensive exercise. It’s hard to do.”
But last week, Welz and Vänskä met again in a theater on the University of Pretoria campus. They hugged, as members of the Minnesota Orchestra sat onstage, ready for a side-by-side rehearsal with her students.
“He’s a man of his word,” Walz said. “So he’s brought his orchestra to South Africa and that’s incredibly special.”
During an hourlong rehearsal, Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians played beside their young counterparts, sharing music stands and the score to Sibelius’ Second Symphony, and whispered tips about what Vänskä would be looking for. The maestro shifted between stern and playful, urging the orchestra to get louder (“This is not a place to be shy!”) and much, much quieter (“Play so no one can hear you.”)
After they wrapped up the Finnish symphony, a young violist, Kgolagano Lephoi, stepped onto the podium.
Then he and the students taught the Minnesota Orchestra the song “Kwela Kwela.” A pair of horn players danced. Vänskä grabbed a mallet and began beating the bass drum.
“I think we know more and more why we are here,” Vänskä said, two concerts and two side-by-side rehearsals into the tour. “We are here to, first of all, try to help young students, to try to give them an idea … about what it means to play on a very high level.”
At Johannesburg, like several of the stops on this tour, there was no backstage. No place for the huge crates and boxes that contain musicians’ instruments, dress clothes and supplies.
So they were stacked inside the hall itself. The musicians had no stage lights, so as the sun waned, they strained to read their sheet music. In Soweto, the night before, the only bathrooms were outside.
“This is a very different way of touring,” said Kevin Smith, the orchestra’s outgoing president. “When you think about what the normal expectations are for a major symphony orchestra … ” But the Minnesota Orchestra adjusts, he said, “no questions asked.”
Classical Movements, a company that has arranged some 250 concerts in South Africa since 1994, managed this tour’s stops and struggles. It had artistic influence, too, commissioning “Harmonia Ubuntu” and suggesting South African-born soloists. The tour cost the orchestra about $2.5 million, most of it covered by a gift from an anonymous couple.
It is, “by all accounts, the biggest project the orchestra has ever done,” Smith said. “It’s hard to know where it goes from here, but … I think the orchestra will continue to be more adventurous and expansive in how it works and with whom it works and where it goes.”
For now, it’s going home.
After a standing ovation in Johannesburg’s cavernous hall, where the sold-out crowd totaled 1,100 people, Vänskä led the orchestra and choir in a Mandela tribute, then yielded the conductor’s podium to Xolani Mootane, who roused the room with “Bawo Thixo Somandla.” Then “Shosholosa,” a constant on this tour.
But the room cleared only after the choirs left singing “Thiba Koloi,” or “Stop the Car.” They kept singing into the hallways, dancing forward, then back.
Minnesota Chorale member Shari Speer, hugged fellow soprano Linda Sokanyile.
“Wasn’t that fun?”
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna