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Minnesota Orchestra hopes voices rise, walls fall on South Africa tour

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David Mennicke, a tenor with the Minnesota Chorale
Forty-eight members of this ensemble will travel to South Africa with the Minnesota Orchestra, rehearses at Orchestra Hall on July 17, 2018.
Euan Kerr | MPR News File

Classical music was once viewed as a whites-only pursuit in South Africa's apartheid system, another way to keep blacks and white apart. Minnesota Orchestra leaders are hoping their five concerts over the next two weeks, including one in Soweto, can help bury those beliefs.

Music director Osmo Vanska got the idea for a tour after visiting Johannesburg a few years ago to work with the South African National Youth Orchestra. He also learned some of the musicians lived in nearby shanty towns. Somehow, they managed to perform at the highest level despite living in tents and tin shacks.  

"How you can practice there when you don't have real walls and so on?" he asked. "But music was an important thing for them, and it was one of those big emotional things when I heard about their background."

While the social structure has long signaled that classical music was for whites, "I couldn't be happier if we can get people to listen to us, black people, like all ages, all colors," Vanksa said.

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 File

To help with that, the orchestra, along with the Minnesota Chorale and the Johannesburg-based Gauteng Choristers, will present lots of different music. There will be Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," Bernstein's "Overture to Candide," and Vanska's favorite, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

There will also be South African songs and a piece for soprano and orchestra commissioned specially for the tour: Harmonia Ubuntu, which draws upon the writings and speeches of Nelson Mandela. The Minnesota Orchestra tour is part of the centennial celebrations of Mandela's birth.

South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye sings the piece. In a recent break between rehearsals in the Twin Cities, Lehobye said she believes the tour will draw a lot of attention in South Africa, which doesn't see many international orchestra tours.

"It's very important for us that such a big orchestra decided to choose to go to South Africa," she said. "You know, they could have gone anywhere in the world. They could have stayed here! It's beautiful. I want to stay here now."

The tour goes from Cape Town to Durban, and then to Johannesburg where the orchestra will take side trips to play in Pretoria and Soweto.

The Soweto concert will be in the Regina Mundi Church, a haven during the Soweto riots of the 1980s and an early site of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions created by Mandela to rebuild post-Apartheid South Africa. That concert will be broadcast Aug. 17, at 7 p.m. on Classical MPR.

Minnesota Chorale Artistic Director Kathy Romey said she expects this trip to be life changing, "and we want to be able to take this experience and further share it with those that are walking and singing with us."

There will likely be a lot of singing. The Minnesotans have been told to expect full audience participation in the South African songs.