Four musicians jumped on a bus in Johannesburg on Friday morning, August 17, headed to Soweto to attend a special Books for Africa event. Their day began with solo and chamber music performances for hundreds of students at Missourilaan Secondary School and ended with a grand Orchestra concert at one of South Africa's most historic venues.
“Oh, shoot I forgot my concert clothes,” said violinist Natsuki Kumagai as she settled onto the bus, jumping up to run back to her room. For the musicians, the day would be nonstop: school event, zipping straight to rehearsal, then a group dinner, evening concert in Soweto and a 60-minute bus ride back to Johannesburg.
When the musicians arrived at the school, hundreds of students, ages 13 and up, were assembled in a windswept courtyard, wearing proper blue school uniforms. Missourilaan Secondary School has known difficult days its leaders have said but, led by Principal Julius Van Rensburg, they are intent on propelling the school to new heights and preparing its 1,260 students to face the world.
The Saint Paul-based nonprofit Books For Africa is donating 40,000 books to this community, some 12,000 of which will find their way here. “We want to partner with Missourilaan and make it a place of excellence,” said Judge LaJune Lange, Minnesota’s Honorary South African Consul, who also attended the event.
Gathered school choirs, comprised of students and teachers, sang songs of welcome and several students offered poems. Ashidy Adams, 17, read a poignant hand-written poem about Nelson Mandela from a small notebook.
“He was steadfast, unshakeable, rooted to stop oppression so that I can taste freedom, not just catch a glimpse of it.”
August is a windy and dusty month in Johannesburg, and Minnesota Orchestra musicians arrived without clothespins, which are often used to clip music to stands in blustery weather. When it was his turn to play, Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel instead asked for student volunteers for the job. Manny Laureano, principal trumpet, told the students, “You have changed me. I am going to play this piece differently from ever before because of your reception today.” Violinists Natsuki Kumagai and Michael Sutton received a rock star ovation when they play a duet.
Afterwards, the musicians struggled to explain the experience. “It was literally indescribable because it was not about things that were palpable,” said Laureano. “There was absolutely no wall between [the students] and their emotions. And when it was time to listen, they were attentive and beautifully so.”
It's filled with history. This is a place where organizers, including Nelson Mandela, now-Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oliver Tambo worked to overcome apartheid.
Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Regina Mundi Roman Catholic Church is a hallowed venue; it served as a center of organization for freedom fighters during the violent apartheid struggle and later it was the site for an early Truth and Reconciliation hearing when victims of apartheid faced their oppressors. Arriving at the simple A-Frame church, Orchestra musicians and staff felt the weight of that history.
“Nelson Mandela was a true world leader,” said clarinet player Tim Zavadil. “And this venue was the epicenter of the fight for equality.”
Outfitting the sanctuary to serve as a concert hall required months of planning, spearheaded by Classical Movements’ Johan Van Zyl and Minnesota Orchestra Technical Director Joel Mooney. Bollards had to be removed (and then replaced) from the front entrance to allow access for the trucks with equipment. A stage was carefully built out over the altar to accommodate the mass 200-person orchestra and choir, and rented lights were hung from the ceiling.
The concert was recorded by Minnesota Public Radio and a four-person MPR crew—Host Brian Newhouse, Producer Bradley Althoff, Technical Director Zachary Rose and Engineer Michael Osborne—buzzed around the space, testing sound levels and gear. They arrived with 1500 pounds of equipment, including back-up battery power in case of a power outage.
Following the concert, producer Althoff rushed a thumb drive containing the complete broadcast back to the Orchestra’s Johannesburg hotel to upload it in time for the 7 pm Central broadcast in Minnesota on Friday evening.
Jenna Ross, Star Tribune
By concert time, it was already dark—late winter lighting—as the crowd filed in. Audience members mingled with musicians as there is no dedicated “backstage” space at the church. MPR’s Newhouse set up at a single microphone to the right of the stage, ready to relate the experience to radio listeners.
This is a nation of singers, but none of the audiences on the tour so far have come close to the full-throated vigor with which the Soweto crowd sang.
Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
The U.S. Consul General for Johannesburg Michael McCarthy welcomed the capacity crowd: “I can’t wait to hear what happens when we throw together the Gauteng Choristers, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale!”
What happened was magic. When the first “Freude” of Beethoven’s Ninth rang out, the energy in the venue was electric. To hear the “Ode to Joy,” that blazing hymn celebrating the togetherness of humankind, sung in this revered space, where people fought and died to achieve equality, was overwhelming.
The audience crescendo grew over the second half of the concert, as the Orchestra and choirs transitioned into a series of African songs: Akhala Amaqhude Amabili, Bawo, Ruri and the infectious call-and-response song, Nelson Mandela. There was no ambiguity in the audience feedback; this crowd was singing, dancing, and waving arms overhead, exuding appreciation.
Afterwards, 17-year-old reporter Mpho, who was attending the concert as part of a Children’s Radio Foundation delegation, offered her assessment. “I liked that the Orchestra tried to cater to South Africans” with some of its musical choices, she said.
Two long-time Regina Mundi parish members, who lived the struggle here, reveled in the concert afterwards. “It took me far away,” said one. “But it was too short. It could have been five hours and we don’t mind.”
I attended a fantastic concert last night w/ the @mn_orchestra & maestro Osmo Vänskä at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, South Africa. It was so moving to hear this wonderful program in such an important place for the anti-apartheid struggle. Congratulations to all! pic.twitter.com/Z4xEBLkVk1— David Krakauer (@DavidKrakauer) August 18, 2018
For our musician travelers, there is still a sense of the surreal about the whole experience. “Life changing,” is how Kumagai described it in an end-of-day Instagram report.
And for Osmo Vänskä: “It was a dream,” he said. “And now it is happening.”
Photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.