The spirit of Nelson Mandela was alive as the Minnesota Orchestra kicked off its South Africa Tour with a performance at Cape Town City Hall on Friday evening, August 10.
The Orchestra’s performance marked the second orchestra concert in the newly refurbished hall, which recently reopened after a 9-month, 27 million Rand ($2 million USD) renovation. Part of the venue’s recent transformation included a statue honoring Nelson Mandela on the same balcony where he first addressed the nation as in 1990 as a free man.
Before the concert, the vibe in the foyer of the recently remodeled venue was electric. South Africans of all backgrounds and ages entered through the doors of the historic venue located on Darling Street across from the Grand Parade, the main public square of the city and home to a bustling marketplace. Once inside the auditorium, some of the younger audience members took selfies and classical music aficionados thumbed through the program book.
The energy of the crowd carried backstage to the musicians and crew, despite the tight quarters. 14,000 pounds of instrument and wardrobe trunks, coupled with many musicians resulted in traffic jams, all of which were taken in stride and good humor.
#DessaInSAfrica Last night in Cape Town, @mn_orchestra opened with the South African national anthem—a big, surprising deal. (My South African friend @rushay said “shocked” might describe the response of some audience members.) This guy definitely dug it. @ClassicalMPR pic.twitter.com/x2A0ZivyVA— Dessa (@dessadarling) August 11, 2018
U.S. Consul General Virginia Blaser welcomed the sold-out crowd, praising the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour--the first by an American orchestra--and their musical diplomacy efforts. The concert was also attended by a contingent of officials from the U.S. Consulate.
Students from the Children’s Radio Foundation, some of whom had never been to a concert before, were in attendance, as well as students from Nelson Mandela University, ERUB Children’s Choir and other organizations.
The audience was instantly captivated by the opening piece, Sibelius’ En Saga, which demonstrated the Orchestra’s trademark broad dynamic range. During the whispering pianissimos at the end of the work, there wasn’t a sound in the hall and the audience erupted in applause once Vänskä lowered the baton.
"Thank you for bringing your years of practice and corporate rehearsal to the shores of Africa and enthralling us with your artistry."
— Audience member
Goitsemang Lehoybe, one of South Africa’s favorite sopranos and an alumna of the University of Cape Town, was the soloist for native son Bongani Ndonana-Breen’s Harmonia Ubuntu. Commissioned by Classical Movements in honor of the Orchestra’s South Africa tour, the piece received its premiere in Minneapolis in July, but this performance was the South African premiere. Mandela’s words and Xhosa-influenced rhythms and melodies are featured in the work, which was well-received by the hometown crowd. At the conclusion of the performance, there were multiple cries of “Bravo” from the audience and several curtain calls for Lehoybe.
"During a rousing, sold-out show Friday, the former president’s words, sung by a soaring soprano, once again hung in the air."
— Jenna Ross, Star Tribune
The second half of the concert featured two audience faves—Bernstein’s boisterous Overture to Candide, followed by Beethoven’s masterful Fifth Symphony.
Music Director Osmo Vänskä then returned to the stage with three encores—two pieces by Sibelius, Tanz-Intermezzo and Finlandia, with the beloved South African song “Shosholoza” in between. At first, when the Orchestra began playing “Shosholoza,” there wasn’t much reaction from the crowd. But once the musicians started to sing the words, the audience erupted in cheers, clapping and singing along.
What an exhilarating evening at beautifully refurbished Cape Town City Hall and to hear magnificent @mn_orchestra under baton of Osma Vanska -from Sibelius to Shosholoza -inspired— Tony Leon (@TonyLeonSA) August 10, 2018
"A couple of people said they'd never been to a classical concert before and were blown away. One woman said that she was seeing colors and recognizing nature in the music."
— Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Although the Orchestra’s time in Cape Town was brief, many meaningful connections with the community were made.
The Orchestra divided on Saturday. About 30 musicians headed to the Artscape Theatre Centre in downtown Cape Town to rehearse and coach student members of the Cape Town Youth Philharmonic. Led by Osmo Vänskä, the ensemble worked—and then worked some more—on Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Sibelius’ Finlandia. “Maybe you need to know the story of Finlandia,” Vänskä said and explained its importance in Finland’s quest for independence from Russia. “When you play, you need to say something,” he said.
The talented students in this Youth Philharmonic range in age from 16 to 24. “I really like what you are doing,” Vänskä told them. “You are fixing things so quickly. Thank you for all you have given today to me and to us.”
The other members of the Minnesota Orchestra bused to the Eurecon Primary School in Elsie’s River Township. Students, parents and small siblings congregated to greet and perform for their guests from Minnesota.
“Parents and students, thank you for coming to school on a Saturday,” said Brendon Adams, leader of the musical ensemble 29:11 and one of the forces behind this visit. “Minnesota Orchestra, we are happy you are here, joining us not just at Cape Town City Hall but in our community.”
The school’s Intermediate Choir, comprised of 10 to 13-year-old students, sang a plaintive welcome, “I am a Small Part of the World,” conducted by Donovan Meyer-Adams. Meyer-Adams is the school’s computer science and math teacher but he does double duty as its choir director. He said his students held a special rehearsal on last week’s national holiday to prepare for today’s performance, rehearsing songs in Afrikaans, English and Swahili.
Minnesota Orchestra string, woodwind and brass ensembles then took the stage, each explaining a little about their instruments and how they produced sound—demonstrating by squeaking reeds and buzzing lips—before playing short chamber pieces.
“Most of these kids aren’t regularly exposed to classical music or instruments,” said Meyer-Adams. “This gives them an idea of what the sounds that come from these instruments are like.”
Trombonist Doug Wright brought down the house with an ever-favorite demonstration. “One of the really cool things about the trombone is that it can make race car sounds,” he said. “This is why you all want to play trombone, right?“
“It’s an honor for us to be here,” he concluded. “Thank you for the invite.”
"The youngsters howled with laughter as the reed players demonstrated the quacking sound of their mouthpieces, but they really loved it when musician Steven Campbell demonstrated how low his tuba could go. The building seemed to shake as he pretended to collapse under the effort, and then it rang with laughter."
— Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
The gathered audience—over 200 parents, students, musicians and Orchestra patrons—moved outside to a central courtyard for a mix-it-up series of performances featuring Praise Dancers, the ensemble 29:11 and some jamming Orchestra musicians, including trumpeter Charles Lazarus, who riffed with 29:11. Rapper-singer-essayist Dessa took the microphone to rap her gratitude. “I hope you see in our faces how happy we are to be here,” she said.
Under a bright late-winter sun, Brendon Adams, 29:11, Orchestra brass players and the assembled audience wrapped it up with a rowdy version of “Welcome to Cape Town,” the Ghoema melody the brass ensemble learned from students earlier in the week.
“The feelings students felt today is something they will remember,” said Meyer-Adams. “It is nice to know you are appreciated . . . and that you count.”
Concert and Elsie's River photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.