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Minnesota Orchestra Honors Nelson Mandela By Bringing Music To South Africa

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Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä leads an afternoon rehearsal in Cape Town, South Africa, before the first concert of its five-city South African tour, Aug. 10, 2018.
Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio News

Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä leads an afternoon rehearsal in Cape Town, South Africa, before the first concert of its five-city South African tour, Aug. 10, 2018.

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.

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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."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.