Sound of Music

Minnesota Orchestra — an unprecedented multi-city tour to commemorate the meaning and memory of Nelson Mandela

By J Brooks Spector 5 September 2018

Minnesota Orchestra. All photos Travis Sanderson

One of America’s leading symphonic groups, the Minnesota Orchestra, played across South Africa, performing everything from a new composition by a leading South African composer, to Beethoven’s massive Choral Symphony, to arrangements of some of South Africa’s best-loved vernacular choral melodies. And delighted thousands.

Putting together a major international tour for a full symphony orchestra is a massive undertaking. It depends on a host of special skills and arrangements that include financial and fundraising management, mastery over a vast multi-continental logistics effort, guiding complex collaborative efforts with governments, other musical organisations, and much, much more — all in addition to the performance of the music by the musicians. (As someone who has worked on such projects around the world over the years, this writer has great appreciation for these crucial but “unflashy” aspects of putting on an international cultural tour such as this one — especially when the plan comes together as well as it did for this tour.)

For more than a week, the renowned Minnesota Orchestra succeeded in this effort as an international artistic component of South Africa’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela. Besides the full orchestral component of musicians, their baggage, and all their instruments and scores, they also brought along a large complement of singers — the Minnesota Chorale — to perform in several of the works on the schedule. And just to make sure the tour had the widest impact possible during their two weeks in South Africa, they performed five concerts in four cities (with two in Johannesburg-Soweto), in addition to master classes and workshops with student musicians, such as with the SA National Youth Orchestra. With this trip, they also just happened to be the first full-scale American orchestra to visit South Africa. Ever.

 While many American music critics have traditionally placed the Minnesota Orchestra just beyond the charmed circle of America’s traditional “big five” orchestras — Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City — under its current music director and principal conductor, Osmo Vanska, the Minnesota Orchestra is giving that old, exclusive club a real run for its money, in part from its sheer musicianship, as well as its large schedule of concerts, its major touring and recording efforts and its active musical education engagement with young people in its home city — and well beyond.

Its hometown may not be New York City or London, but the “twin cities” of Minneapolis/St Paul are well known for their active cultural life — featuring a number of fine museums, good theatre, excellent universities, and a lively cultural scene more generally. It is also one of those places where the region’s business community has been committed to support the arts for many years. For this South Africa tour, its list of sponsors includes many of those home-grown, but well-known corporate leaders in the US from Minnesota.

Minnesota also has a tradition of openness and public optimism, reminiscent of that old tagline from Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio programme and stage show (and his columns and books), The Prairie Home Companion — where he would begin (and end) his show with: “Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Typical of this kind of behaviour, prior to the concert, the chorale’s members wandered through the crowd of audience arrivals in the lobby, handing out pins with their choir’s name on them — and embracing concert goers with bubbly enthusiasm, hugs and even a few kisses.

Minnesota Orchestra

In parallel, Minnesota has also been a home port for decades for classic American liberal populism, with political figures like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in a Democratic Party that still calls itself the Democratic Farmer Labor Party in honour of its populist roots (even though the state also made professional wrestler Jesse Ventura its governor some years ago, so who really knows). Oh, and Minneapolis was also the home of the fictional Mary Richards in that long-running US television series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, with the heroine’s trademark chirpiness, spunk and optimism that seemed to typify how Minnesota’s residents think of themselves.

Each of the Minnesota Orchestra’s concerts began with the two national anthems, with the orchestra joined in Soweto and Johannesburg by the massed Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers, producing a rousing, emotionally charged opening, with the choral voices blending together resonantly. In the final concert in Johannesburg, the choir members dramatically filed into the hall after the audience had been seated, arraying themselves 360 degrees around the hall. This staging was obviously designed to encourage audience members to participate in the emotional musical moment of the two anthems performed by such massive musical resources at work. It worked.

The Finnish-American Vanska has, in his career, led various orchestras across Scandinavia and the Baltic states, as well as one of the BBC’s orchestras. Four years ago, he had come to South Africa to work with the SA National Youth Orchestra — an event that clearly contributed to his enthusiasm for this recent tour using the full resources of the Minnesota Orchestra.

As a demonstration of their commitment to cultural diplomacy, Vanska had also led the Minnesota Orchestra’s triumphal concert tour to Havana, Cuba in 2015, just as American and Cuban political relations were beginning to thaw. And just prior to this South African tour, Vanska and his orchestra had been in Britain for the traditional Proms concert.

Since its founding in 1903, the orchestra has been home base for an important roster of foreign conductors who were establishing careers in America and elsewhere. These have included Sir Neville Marriner, Anatol Dorati, Dimitri Mitropoulos and, perhaps most famously, Eugene Ormandy, just before he had taken up his baton with the Philadelphia Orchestra for their decades-long partnership.

Sadly, along with many other major cultural institutions in the US and beyond, this orchestra’s financial fortunes had suffered greatly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the consequent loss of financial support. Eventually this led to a management-imposed lockout for the 2012-13 concert season (although individual players joined together to carry out several concerts on their own for the orchestra’s many fans. Amid these tensions, Vanska had thrown in his sympathies with the musicians and eventually he even resigned in protest over the continuing lockout.

After that period of tension, in 2014, the orchestra and its management finally reached an agreement and the popular Vanska was immediately rehired to lead the orchestra. The orchestra now performs some 175 performances a year, as well as a variety of education-related music development activities. Many of its concerts are broadcast via the Minnesota Public Radio stations as well as on audio streaming. The orchestra also has a major, ongoing recording schedule, including, among other efforts, an ambitious project to record the complete Mahler symphonies.

On this tour, in homage to his birthplace, Vanska had programmed Finland’s favourite son composer, Jean Sibelius’s En Saga, Opus 9, for several of the concerts, although not in Johannesburg. Instead, in the Johannesburg concert, the first scheduled work had been Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture. Along with Nelson Mandela, Bernstein too was born in 1918, and so this year is also the centenary of his birth.

But even before Bernstein’s overture was performed, once it became known on the day of the concert that former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had died, Vanska elected to have the orchestra lead off with the evocative, contemplative music of Nimrod, from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

This homage to Annan’s memory was delivered with great warmth and precision, despite virtually no time to prepare — demonstrating just how well this ensemble has been drilled. Nimrod is a work very different in mood and style from the rest of the planned concert.

Then, shifting their musical gears quickly, the orchestra performed the Bernstein overture with a sweeping bravura that built momentum as the ensemble raced to the end of this magnificently tuneful overture — in honour of Bernstein’s own centenary year. Candide has the kind of energy and drive found in the best Mozart and Verdi overtures, works that hint at the melodies an audience will come to embrace in the opera that soon follows.

The second scheduled work was part of the orchestra’s programme of commissioning works by contemporary composers — in this case a leading South Africa composer, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, in tandem with the tour – and in keeping with the commemoration of the anniversary of Nelson Mandela birth.

Over the past decade, in many of his other works, Ndodana-Breen has largely dedicated himself to the themes of African heroes and South African liberation. There has been a song cycle based on the poetry of Ingrid Jonker, a one-act opera on the life of Chris Hani, a more extensive opera on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and an orchestral-vocal tapestry on South African ideals, Credo. In the case of this new work, the composer entitled it Harmonia Ubuntu, a work for soprano and orchestra, sung in these premieres by South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye.

Harmonia Ubuntu uses what are effectively aphorisms and couplets, drawn from the writing and speeches of Nelson Mandela. Its orchestration calls for standard western instruments and soprano voice – plus the African instruments, the djembe drum and wasembe rattle. As the composer noted, the particular words chosen are selected to “reinforce our common humanity and inspire courage over adversity… [Mandela’s] message is one of reconciliation, forgiveness, freedom and justice and love for our fellow man. More importantly, we are reminded that it takes courage to pursue these ideals.”

In terms of musical structure, the composer has explained it was his intention to draw on devices such as traditional African “short start” beginnings where one musical voice challenges others to respond (a kind of call and response), among other African styles and musical ideas. As he says:

The musical ideas that frame this work are often associated with the Xhosa hexatonic scale. This is a six-note scale that comes from the overtones created by musical bows (mrhube, uhadi) used over centuries by the Xhosa people”, although he reached beyond to the mbira in common use to the north of South Africa. But the composer has also intuitively channelled one of his long-favoured American composers, Aaron Copland, and, in particular, his World War II-era inspirational, patriotic work, A Lincoln Portrait.

A key difference between the two works, however, is that in Ndodana-Breen’s new work, the words are sung, while Copland’s work was composed with spoken words in a kind of counterpoint to the music itself. Copland, especially in that patriotic voice found in his work from the 1940s, displayed what has come to be an instantly recognizable, uniquely “American” voice. Ndodana-Breen similarly seems to be aiming for a parallel, but drawing upon South Africa’s unique voice. Ndodana-Breen’s approach in this new composition may be more subtle than Copland’s Americana often was, but it requires careful, attentive listening to the sung words in order to be appreciated in full.

There were challenges, however, for audiences to reach that full appreciation and appraisal of the work, as performed in the Johannesburg concert. The first was the questionable acoustics of Johannesburg’s City Hall venue, a great pile of Edwardian architecture in the old central business district, now partially used as the home of the Gauteng provincial legislature. At least for those sitting in the stall seats; the sound of the strings and woodwinds reached the audience less than clearly, despite the precision of the score and the playing of the orchestra. Accordingly, this sonic muddiness also affected how one could hear the soloist’s performance.

The second challenge for the work is that while Mandela’s words touched the nation in a legal sense over the obvious injustices of the social and political arrangements of apartheid South Africa, those selected for this new work are not necessarily words so easily apprehended melodically or lyrically.

Listening to them (or reading them), Mandela’s lines seem to have less of the soaring rhythmic quality than Abraham Lincoln’s words do, especially as the latter man’s language had been so deeply infused with biblical and Shakespearean cadences. Together, these aspects of the performance made it more challenging for the singer to lift our spirits and carry us along on with the intentions and dreams of the late South African leader.

The second half of the concert was given over to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, Choral, in D minor, Opus 125. This late work by the composer demands enormous musical resources, including full orchestra, four soloists, and large choir. For this performance, the resources comprised four South African soloists, the visiting American orchestra, plus the visiting Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers.

While the vocal portion of the symphony, The Ode to Joy, has occasionally been hijacked for less than salutary purposes, such as a national anthem for renegade Rhodesia under white minority rule, it has more usually been selected for concerts in celebration, such as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

With its composition, Beethoven had produced an unprecedented work with its great vocal conclusion that draws text from the work of German poet Frederick von Schiller, but with a few additions and amendments by the composer. The choral finale brings to the fore a bold embrace of romantic period ideals, specifically Beethoven’s deeply felt beliefs about freedom, justice and a universal humanity. A vocally and intellectually revolutionary work, it draws on the many possibilities of vocal combinations and musical styles, even the nearly dissonant Turkish military music that had been popular in Vienna during Mozart and Beethoven’s time.

In conducting this symphony, Vanska led the massive work through to its exultant conclusion with great drive and vigour in the second and fourth movements, with a real sense of the nervous energy that pervades the first movement, and through the gentle, almost elegiac third movement. An historical aside is that for many years that boisterous second movement had served as the intro and sign-off music for the popular evening news broadcast on the NBC television network in the US in the 1960s. (Can anyone imagine the use, now, of an excerpt from a mainstay of the classical repertoire as the signature music for a mainstream news show?)

Because there were so many musical resources on stage simultaneously, the quartet of soloists — Goitsemang Lehobye, soprano; Minette du Toit-Pearce, mezzo; Siyobonga Maqungo, tenor; and Njabulo Madlala, baritone — had been placed amid the choirs. Between that and the less-than-adequate acoustics of the hall, the soloists’ voices were sometimes outweighed by the powerful orchestral and choral forces on stage as well. Regardless, performed as tribute to a great, now departed leader, this great symphony barrelled forward to a rousing, roaring climax, as the assembled voices rang out with:

This kiss to the whole world!

Brothers – beyond the canopy of the stars

Surely a loving Father dwells,

Do you fall headlong, millions?

Have you any sense of the Creator, World?

Seek Him above the canopy of the stars!

Surely he dwells beyond the stars.

Or as Leonard Bernstein had said of Beethoven and his compositions, “Rightness — that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms — leave them to the Tchaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.” And, overall, this choral symphony under the baton of Osmo Vanska rose to the test.

Inevitably, the encores included JS Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Akhala Amaqhude Amabili (orchestration by Peter Louis van Dijk) — with the composer seated in the front row and acknowledged by the conductor; then Archibald Arnold Mxolisi Matyila’s Bawo Thixo Somandla (arranged by Khumalo); and then, finally, inevitably, Shosholoza, with much of the audience joining in, singing that popular work song now turned into a South African sports anthem. There were some in the audience who seemed amazed at how those visiting Minnesota choir members had so credibly mastered the words to those three vernacular African songs – and the stylized movements and ritualised foot stomps that went with them. But then, why not? Music’s the universal language, right?

This massive cultural effort, bringing more than a hundred Minnesotans to South Africa gained great applause and excitement wherever they performed. While Cape Town’s newly refurbished City Hall was a hit with concert goers and the vibe in Soweto’s Regina Mundi Church was stirring, sadly the venue for Johannesburg’s performance is in need of some real love and attention. The building has a worn-out, down-at-the-heels feel to it; the acoustics need careful attention; and the immediate environment outside the hall almost cries out for being spruced up, just like so many other parts of the old downtown these days. And it should be.

Johannesburg desperately needs a high-quality concert venue that elevates the event, even as it welcomes its audiences. Sadly, Johannesburg’s venerable old City Hall no longer meets that standard.

It seems amazing that not one Johannesburg corporation — or corporations — are interested in seeing their name emblazoned on this landmark building as they work with the city and province to give it the renovations and updates that are vitally needed, in order to make this historic building once again a venue to be admired — and used by all.

The city needs this done if it is going to be able to attract future tours of the quality of this recent visit by the Minnesota Orchestra. It needs a venue that offers a sense of optimism about the future of the city, rather than be forced to rely upon a place in need of emergency intervention. DM


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