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Meet the Musicians

Brass in South Africa: “A second once-in-a-lifetime event”

R. Douglas Wright faces five brass students, two playing trombone while three resting trumpet players look on.
R. Douglas Wright working with South African students at a master class during the tour.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s August 2018 visit to South Africa—an ambitious and wide-ranging tour celebrating the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birth—had a chamber-sized spinoff in August 2022 when a quintet of Orchestra brass musicians returned to the country for a 10-day, six-city tour. The circuit by trumpet players Douglas C. Carlsen and Charles Lazarus, horn player Michael Gast, trombonist R. Douglas Wright and tuba player Steven Campbell—who perform frequently as an independent group under the name Uptown Brass—featured public performances, master classes, workshops, and other collaborations and exchanges.

Classical Movements, the same highly regarded concert tour company that coordinated the full Orchestra’s 2018 tour, was the presenting organization for this smaller-scale visit. “Classical Movements has worked with the Orchestra many times, and they wanted to keep touring and community connections going as the pandemic eased up,” explained Lazarus. He added that since Uptown Brass did many engagement events during the 2018 tour, Classical Movements reached out to them to propose a follow-up visit “driven by a strong sense of collaborative cultural mission that was very focused on education.”

“Following in the footsteps of the [full] Minnesota Orchestra, which was a project we planned for two and a half years, we found it was really important to continue our efforts to bring the highest level of American instrumentalists to South Africa,” explained Neeta Helms, Classical Movements’ president.

The focal point of the tour was six performances at venues in Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Moederkerk. Rather than retracing the steps of the 2018 tour, this visit branched out in new directions ranging from university settings to religious and professional venues. Key partnering organizations and individuals included Richard Cock Enterprises, the Johannesburg Musical Society, the University of South Africa, the North-West University, Herman van Niekerk and Louise Howlett. The array of featured music included arrangements of works of Bach, Bernstein, Ellington, Gershwin and Consuelo Velasquez, as well as Anthony Barfield’s Gravity—“a profound work addressing the question of what happens to dreams that are deferred,” noted Lazarus—new pieces composed for the occasion by Jack Stamp, and versions of Grazing in the Grass and Pata Pata crafted in tribute to iconic South African musicians Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.

Charles Lazarus, standing and holding trumpet, speaks to seated musicians from the Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.
Charles Lazarus addressing musicians from the Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

With no national or international touring plans currently announced for the full Minnesota Orchestra—as the uncertainty of the pandemic continues to ripple through the orchestra world’s touring initiatives—trips such as the Uptown Brass tour continue to keep the Orchestra’s 115-year-old spirit of touring alive in an unofficial capacity.

“When the Minnesota Orchestra visited South Africa in 2018, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Lazarus reflected. “This opportunity from Classical Movements was a second once-in-a-lifetime event. We were all deeply moved by the positive, hopeful and giving spirit of the South African people we met. The children we worked with were especially inspirational. Enjoying their sense of gratitude and loving collaboration was an experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. It was a good reminder of the importance and power of music both abroad and here at home. It’s our responsibility to be good stewards of that.”

The quintet at God’s Window, a vantage point at Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga.
The quintet at God’s Window, a vantage point at Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga.