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Orchestra tribute to Mandela previews South African trip

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South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye rehearses for the world premiere.
South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye rehearses for the world premiere of "Harmonia Ubuntu" with the Minnesota Orchestra on Wednesday at Orchestra Hall.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

This weekend the Minnesota Orchestra presents the world premiere of a work that will be a centerpiece of its upcoming South African tour.

The orchestra's concerts come under the umbrella of "Music for Mandela," which marks the centennial of Nelson Mandela's birth. It's a huge enterprise involving hundreds of Minnesotans and performers from South Africa.

By all accounts, this project has been a stretch. Take the Minnesota Chorale. It usually performs music such as Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." That will be part of the tour, but so will a selection of South African songs.

Chorale member Claire Klein said learning the new material goes beyond just picking up new songs. "Learning the Xhosa was tricky," she said.

David Mennicke, a tenor with the Minnesota Chorale
David Mennicke, a tenor with the Minnesota Chorale and one of 48 members of the ensemble who will travel to South Africa with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Klein and fellow chorale member David Mennicke have had to learn how to sing not only new words, but new ways of vocalizing, including the clicks that are a feature of some South African languages. Mennicke said there are three types of clicking the singers must master.

"The hardest one, I think, to get to sing is the Xhosa, that click from the top of your mouth," he said.

Mennicke said the singers have also learned there is no music in South Africa without movement, so they now have some dance moves too. 

Some 150 Minnesota Chorale singers will perform during two concerts this weekend. Mennicke and Klein are among the 48 who are going on the tour to South Africa itself. In all, the orchestral party will number close to 300.

Chorale artistic director Kathy Romey says the tour offers a real opportunity for international collaboration.

Osmo Vanska and Kathy Romey talk during a rehearsal for Music For Mandela.
Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vanska and Minnesota Chorale artistic director Kathy Romey talk during a rehearsal.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Anytime you have people coming together around music, a very special bond is formed and community is something that is forged on a whole other level," she said.

Friday's concert is called "Celebrating Mandela at 100." It uses music, videos and speakers to celebrate the South African leader who survived decades of imprisonment at the hands of the apartheid regime, at last emerging to become president and lead the restructuring of his country. This included the truth and reconciliation commissions that addressed the racist wrongs of the past, but also offered forgiveness to the perpetrators. Mandela's daughter Makaziwe Mandela will speak at the event.

"I think it's really a great honor and a great legacy for my dad," she said. "To really form those bridges that my father dreamt about, talked about, across oceans, such vast distances. It really means a lot to us and a whole lot of South Africans."

Dr. Makaziwe Mandela, Nelson Mandela's oldest daughter
Dr. Makaziwe Mandela, Nelson Mandela's oldest daughter, will speak at a celebration of her father's life at Orchestra Hall on Friday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The tour springs from a collaboration between Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vanska and the South African Youth Orchestra a few years back. He had been thinking about touring the Minnesota Orchestra, and saw that all the major ensembles were by-passing Cape Town and Johannesburg.

"In South Africa I thought that there might be much more need for us to come," he said.

As the idea of a tour evolved, so did the commission of a piece. Classical Movements, which arranged the tour, asked South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen to create a work based on Nelson Mandela's writings and speeches. It's called "Harmonia Ubuntu."

South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye will sing the piece. She has worked with the composer before and knows his preference for complex rhythms. She said she was delighted by the score when she got it.

"It's such an honor to say I felt that this Mandela speech was being said by me," she said. "And all the beautiful lines and messages in it were just so inspiring, and I thought, 'This needs to be heard.'"

In addition to these events, there will be a visit by Ladysmith Black Mambazo July 31, followed by a tour sendoff concert Aug. 1. Then it's off to Africa.