On Thursday, August 16, the Orchestra performed their third concert of the South Africa tour, in the Aula Centre at the University of Pretoria. Before the performance, however, Minnesota Orchestra musicians fanned out around the campus, working with students from the University and from the South African National Youth Orchestra.
Conductor Gerben Grooten led Osmo Vänskä through the picturesque University of Pretoria campus to a small classroom in the fine arts building, where he would spend the afternoon leading a master class with seven of Gerben’s conducting students.
Gerben, who serves as resident conductor of the University of Pretoria Orchestras, has built a solid conducting studio on campus. His students range from first to fourth years and come from a variety of instrument backgrounds. At first, the room is quiet when he asks for questions.
“This is like in Finland,” Vänskä said. “No one wants to start.”
Soon the questions started rolling in. “How much does being Finnish influence your interpretation of Sibelius?” one asked.
“It doesn’t hurt to be Finnish and conduct Sibelius,” Vänskä said. “But there are many non-Finnish conductors who do it very well too. If we hear something again and again, that makes us think it is our music. When you repeat something, you can become a specialist.”
Students asked questions about stage fright, baton technique, rehearsal preparation and communication with musicians. Vänskä offered a general rule with good humor: “The more you speak, the more the players hate you. It is always better to go with body language.”
And some parting words that are the essence of the Vänskä philosophy:
“The composer is the highest order. We are performers and we must follow the composer.”
Watching Osmo Vänskä conduct is sometimes like watching a man slow dance alone. Sometimes it’s like he’s fencing. And then there are moments like this one, where for a few bars he's Poseidon, summoning big waves of sound to roll over. #DessaInSAfrica @classicalmpr @mn_orchestra pic.twitter.com/T9C5javwqb— Dessa (@dessadarling) August 16, 2018
Resilience is an important quality for conductors, especially on tour. Following the student session, Vänskä zipped onto a bus with a small group of musicians and staff to attend a reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Pretoria. The U.S. Mission in South Africa has been a generous supporter of the Minnesota Orchestra South Africa tour.
Three string principals—Erin Keefe, Susie Park and Rebecca Albers—played a little Dvořák, and then conductor and musicians headed back to the Aula Centre to prepare for the evening’s concert.
Classical Movements CEO and Founder Neeta Helms welcomed the crowd. “We’ve been having a lekker time,” she exclaimed. “Lekker” is the Afrikaans word for superb or fantastic.
Then, Jessica Lapenn, Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Mission in South Africa, spoke, praising the Orchestra and the audience for being part of the celebration around Mandela’s 100th. “All of you being here reaffirms our belief in arts and cultural affairs as a way to sustain relationships,” Lapenn said. “The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are citizen diplomats and represent the very best of the U.S.”
Lapenn concluded her remarks, describing how music brings unity from diversity and that orchestras are the perfect example of this: a group of individuals with tremendous abilities who work together toward a common end goal. For an orchestra, that shared goal is to bring beauty and empathy to our shared humanity. “That’s the spirit of Nelson Mandela that we need to move his legacy forward.”
Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Many students from SANYO and the University of Pretoria were in the audience as well as students from LEAP Science & Math School and Field Band Foundation of South Africa. The crowd was electric—responding enthusiastically to the Orchestra’s performance. As Vänskä acknowledged each individual section of the orchestra, the students in the crowd cheered loudly for the musicians they had shared the stage with earlier that day.
Photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.