The stage at the Aula Theatre at the University of Pretoria was jammed with musicians Wednesday, professionals elbow to elbow with their student counterparts.
The energy was palpable as the players — members of the Minnesota Orchestra and the South African National Youth Orchestra — prepared to rehearse the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in a scrum of music.
Back against the wall in the second violin section, Michael Sutton shared a stand with 18-year-old SANYO violinist Casey Jacobs. During a break in rehearsal, they discussed bow and fingering technique. Sutton urged Casey to make full use of her bow.
"You paid for all the hair on the bow, right?" he joked. "Well, use it!"
She asked him how long he has played violin. He began when he was 4. He's 49 now, so — a while.
He asked her what instruments she has tried, and she ran through a list including the flute and the viola. With that last one, she discovered its larger size forced her to stretch her hand uncomfortably. "It actually hurt," she said. "I'm going to stick with violin."
And that's when Sutton leaned forward and asked, "Would you like to try mine?"
Jacobs looked a little nervous at first, but they traded instruments and she carefully placed Sutton's violin under her chin.
Then, she was off: Running scales. They played a couple of tunes together.
"I am so in awe," she said afterward. "I literally have no words to describe this feeling. It is really cool, so I am really happy I am here."
The Minnesota Orchestra stopped in the South African capital Wednesday as part of its five-city, two-week tour of the country, said to be the first of its kind for a major U.S. orchestra. The side-by-side rehearsal was one of several joint programs with South African schools and musical groups the orchestra planned along the way.
From the audience, Sutton's wife, Beatrice Blanc, watched — and wept. A violinist herself, she realized immediately what was happening onstage: She pointed how, unlike many of the other professional musicians, her husband was sitting inside from Jacobs, who sat at the edge of the stage.
"Michael is deferring to her. He is turning the pages for her. That shows respect," said Blanc. "That got to me. But he just let her play his violin...." Blanc's voice trailed off, and she began crying again.
Sutton's instrument was made in Italy in 1760. It's a Gabrielli violin, and very valuable. Handing it over to Jacobs and letting her play it was an even greater sign of Sutton's respect for her talent and her musicianship.
It was these young musicians who inspired the Minnesota Orchestra's tour. Music director Osmo Vanska met them a few years ago, and realized that not many orchestras tour their country. His orchestra could make a real impact, he thought, by touring and showing what a great orchestra can do.
Gerben Grooten, the University of Pretoria's resident conductor, welcomed both orchestras. He said it was a great honor to have the Minnesota visitors, but he also encouraged the young South African musicians not to be shy, and, as he put it, push their stand-mates a little. "They are Americans! They can take it!" he said, drawing a laugh.
The South African musicians are young, ranging from 18 to 25, but they are, Grooten said, "super talented." They proved him right in the way that they played alongside the more experienced Minnesotans.
The side-by-side rehearsal, he said, was an important moment for his musicians. South Africa has a lot to offer, he said, if it's confident enough. His musicians are often too ready to believe they're not very good, Grooten, who is Dutch, said. But playing alongside the Minnesota Orchestra, holding their own, he said, is empowering.
"Let's just sit down, shut up, play music and feel that you actually bring value," he said.