SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA – Some audience members hummed along to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Many swayed to the Zulu folk song “Akhala Amaqhude Amabili.”
Then the Minnesota Orchestra and its 145-voice choir swung into a Nelson Mandela tribute, “Usilethela Uxolo,” bringing the crowd packed into Soweto’s historic Regina Mundi Catholic Church to its feet Friday night, singing, stepping and clapping.
“Nelson Mandela!” a tenor called out.
“U-Mandela!” the crowd sang back.
With protest songs and South African soloists, the Minnesota Orchestra celebrated Mandela in this iconic church that played a key role in the fight to end apartheid. A series of stained glass windows depicting that struggle includes the smiling face of the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
So when the Minnesota Orchestra chose Mandela’s centennial year to became the first professional U.S. orchestra to tour South Africa, “the only place was Regina Mundi,” said Neeta Helms, president of Classical Movements, the Virginia-based touring company whose work in this country helped inspire this tour.
But the venue carried risks: Could the church accommodate all those musicians? Would people come? And, if so, would the audience reflect the township’s diversity?
More than 1,000 people — most of them black, many of them lifelong Soweto residents — packed the pews, singing along in multiple languages.
In the audience were young people: members of the South African National Youth Orchestra, who had rehearsed alongside members of the Minnesota Orchestra earlier in the week. The sister, mother and aunt of a choir member. A pair of teenage trumpet students from Soweto and their coach, George Dickson.
The students told him about an instrument they had never seen before. An oboe? he guessed.
“It was an opportunity for us to expose them to a live orchestra,” said Dickson, 65, who’s lived all his life in Soweto. There’s orchestral music in this city, “but not the real thing,” he said with a smile.
‘This one’s new to us’
Last Friday’s concert in Cape Town felt like an emotional start to the tour, which wraps up Saturday night in the stately City Hall of Johannesburg. Pretoria offered top-notch acoustics. But of the five concerts, this one, in the church known as “the people’s cathedral,” was the one musicians buzzed about.
“All of these concerts are special,” said violist Sam Bergman, “but I’d be lying if I said everyone hadn’t been looking forward to Soweto.”
That’s not only because of the setting, but because of the program — specially crafted for the occasion, leaning heavily on South African music.
Two best friends sat in a front pew, singing and laughing together. Irene Nxumalo, 69, and Sheila Mkhomude, 71, met in the church choir at Regina Mundi, “and ever since then we are bosom buddies,” Mkhomude said. The pair appreciated the African songs, they said, whistling with appreciation for the orchestra and the choirs.
Beethoven made them emotional: “What was the language they were singing?” Mkhomude asked. They also loved the national anthem, which the orchestra has played at the start of each concert on this tour.
“Not ours,” Mkhomude clarified. “Yours!”
She then sang its melody, using “la la” instead of words.
“This one’s new to us, so we love it.”
Scars from apartheid battle
As musicians arrived at Regina Mundi for rehearsal Friday afternoon, the church’s caretaker, Danny Dube, was just wrapping up a tour.
The community has worked to repair the church in recent years, redoing the roof and the windows, he told a small group of tourists. But church leaders left bullet holes in the church’s ceiling from a 1976 uprising, when police shot into the sanctuary at young, peaceful protesters trying to find refuge there.
“It’s good to have a few reminders,” said Alice Pescuric, a visitor from Pittsburgh.
“Yes, it is,” Dube replied.
Visitors can find history in every corner of Regina Mundi, including a visitor’s log that includes Mandela and, in 2011, former First Lady Michelle Obama. But in many ways, it’s a humble church, not made for symphony orchestras. In order to stage this concert, Classical Movements had to build a stage. Move pews. Add lighting. Remove — and then replace — concrete security bollards outside the church to make room for the orchestra’s trucks.
The continent-crossing choir, made up of about 50 members of the Minnesota Chorale and more from the Johannesburg-based Gauteng Choristers, sang together in a handful of languages, including traditional African songs in Sotho and Zulu and Beethoven in German.
“Symphonic music is still taken as an elite thing” in South Africa, said Siyabonga Maqungo, the tenor soloist on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Maqungo was born in Soweto, grew up in the nearby township of Katlehong and now lives in Germany. When he heard Minnesota was bringing a concert to Soweto, “I was already sold,” he said. “Because I want us to wipe away this narrative of classical or symphonic music being only for the elite.”
Maqungo pointed to a line in “Ode to Joy,” which translates as: “All men are made brothers/ Where your gentle wings abide.”
“When I think of Mandela,” he said, “I think of Beethoven.”
David Mennicke, a tenor section leader for the Minnesota Chorale, said he has sung Beethoven’s Ninth “many, many times.”
“But to sing it in this context with brothers and sisters from halfway across the world — that feeling, that sentiment, that idea of all humanity becoming brothers and sisters … we’re actually doing that, becoming that,” he said. “That was the goal of the trip, and that’s what’s being achieved.”
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna