Soweto crowd rapturously responds to Minnesota Orchestra

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Soweto concert
Osmo Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra, the Minnesota Chorale and the Johannesburg-based Gauteng Choristers in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Friday in Soweto.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Updated Aug. 18, 9 a.m. | Posted: Aug. 17, 7:40 p.m.

They came. They listened. They sang and danced.

Some 1,300 people packed the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, South Africa, on Friday night for the Minnesota Orchestra's much-anticipated concert in what's described as the bedrock of South Africa's freedom struggle.

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Regina Mundi served as an meeting place for activists during the Soweto Uprising of the 1970s and '80s, and suffered a series of attacks from South African police during the apartheid era.

Bullet holes in the ceiling and other damage from those troubled times are preserved as a reminder of those troubled times.

The orchestra knew a classical concert here might be a hard sell. South Africa has a great love of music, but the tradition is choral. Classical music is something that is not part of many South Africans' lives. Yet the audience poured through the doors at the church and kept coming long after the concert began.

Outreach is a major part of the tour and even before the music began, Minnesota Orchestra musicians, dressed in their concert black, wandered through the crowd. They chatted with the early arrivals, showing and explaining their instruments to young members of the audience, as their adult companions listened in too. While the crowd was mainly adults, many children lined the pews.

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Soweto concert
Sheila Mkhomude (in white) and Irene Mxuala (dark headscarf) danced to one of the Minnesota Orchestra's encores
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Unlike the other concerts in the tour so far, this was a majority black crowd. Tour organizers Classical Movements worked tirelessly to encourage local people to come to the Soweto show.

There was a hint of what was to come from the start of the concert when the orchestra opened with the South African national anthem. This is a nation of singers, but none of the audiences on the tour so far have come close to the full-throated vigor with which the Soweto crowd sang.

This is the first tour of South Africa by a major U.S. orchestra and in her speech of welcome, Classical Movements' Neeta Helms said as they planned the tour, they knew Soweto had to be on the itinerary. The crowd cheered in appreciation.

The program began with Sibelius, a composer whose work has long been a focus of Music Director Osmo Vanska. Then it was on to "Harmonia Ubuntu," the piece commissioned from South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen specially for the tour. It sets the words of Nelson Mandela to music which draws on the classical tradition but is based on complex African rhythms.

The audience roared when South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye emerged onstage in traditional dress, but were then held in awe by her powerful interpretation of the piece. She received the first standing ovation of the night.

At the intermission, Sibongile Dladla initially struggled to find words to describe her reaction.

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Soweto concert
With a full complement of Minnesota Orchestra musicians joined by members of the Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers, the stage at Regina Mundi Church in South Africa was packed. The Minnesota Orchestra played the most anticipated concert of its South African tour Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in the historic Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto. It was the centerpiece concert of the orchestra's five-city tour of South Africa, marking the centennial of Nelson Mandela's birth.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Wow, wow, wow!" she said. "My first time in the orchestra like this, and I am blown away. It's really, really interesting. And I like what I have just seen and heard."

Dladla said she came because a friend was singing in the choir, but she also wanted to see the orchestra. She says as a Catholic she was pleased to see the orchestra play in Regina Mundi. She says there was a powerful statement in just having a U.S. orchestra in Soweto.

"Coming to Soweto, people are scared of coming to Soweto," she said. "Yet the Americans are bold: at night, they are here. So, it means the status quo has changed. Soweto has changed. It is no longer a scary place, but a place where people live together. So, it really shows that we have moved from that era and we are looking to a better future."

The number of performers doubled on stage as the Minnesota Chorale and Johannesburg's Gauteng Choristers lined up behind the orchestra for Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Four South African soloists lifted the audience with their singing.

But things really took off when orchestra and chorus performed a series of South African songs.

Encouraged by conductor Xolani Mootane, the crowd rose and joined in, singing and dancing. The excitement only rose with the orchestra's rendition of "Shosholoza" which has been described as South Africa's second national anthem, and then "Usilethela Uxolo (Nelson Mandela)" a song to the late South African leader who had a home not far from the church.

In the front row, self-described "oldies" Sheila Mkhomude and Irene Mxualo danced and sang.

"We really enjoyed it. Our troubles are all behind," said Mxualo.

"I will be dancing in my blankets," said Mkhomude. "I will be pulling on my pillow, thinking of this orchestra. Minnesota!" She said it is also her first concert. Both women loved the Sibelius, and the singing of soloist Lehobye. "You took us far, now. You took us far, you people. We are very proud of you." She only had one complaint: the concert, at two hours, was too short.

"It can be five hours. We don't mind. We just enjoy dancing!"

Several audience members said they hope the Minnesota Orchestra will return to Soweto, preferably next year. They promise they will be there to sing and dance again.