For Minnesota Orchestra, Soweto concert is an ode to joy, in many languages

August 18, 2018

Soweto, South Africa Some audience members hummed along to Beethovens Ode to Joy. Many swayed to the Zulu folk song Akhala Amaqhude Amabili.

Then the Minnesota Orchestra and its 145-voice choir swung into a Nelson Mandela tribute, Usilethela Uxolo, bringing the crowd packed into Sowetos historic Regina Mundi Catholic Church to its feet Friday night, singing, stepping and clapping.

Nelson Mandela! a tenor called out.

U-Mandela! the crowd sang back.

With protest songs and South African soloists, the Minnesota Orchestra celebrated Mandela in this iconic church that played a key role in the fight to end apartheid. A series of stained glass windows depicting that struggle includes the smiling face of the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

So when the Minnesota Orchestra chose Mandelas centennial year to became the first professional U.S. orchestra to tour South Africa, the only place was Regina Mundi, said Neeta Helms, president of Classical Movements, the Virginia-based touring company whose work in this country helped inspire this tour.

But the venue carried risks: Could the church accommodate all those musicians? Would people come? And, if so, would the audience reflect the townships diversity?

More than 1,000 people most of them black, many of them lifelong Soweto residents packed the pews, singing along in multiple languages.

In the audience were young people: members of the South African National Youth Symphony, who had rehearsed alongside members of the Minnesota Orchestra earlier in the week. The sister, mother and aunt of a choir member. A pair of teenage trumpet students from Soweto and their coach, George Dickson.

The students told him about an instrument they had never seen before. An oboe? he guessed.

It was an opportunity for us to expose them to a live orchestra, said Dickson, 65, whos lived all his life in Soweto. Theres orchestral music in this city, but not the real thing, he said with a smile.

This ones new to us

Last Fridays concert in Cape Town felt like an emotional start to the tour, which wraps up Saturday night in the stately City Hall of Johannesburg. Pretoria offered top-notch acoustics. But of the five concerts, this one, in the church known as the peoples cathedral, was the one musicians buzzed about.

All of these concerts are special, said violist Sam Bergman, but Id be lying if I said everyone hadnt been looking forward to Soweto.

Thats not only because of the setting, but because of the program specially crafted for the occasion, leaning heavily on South African music.

Two best friends sat in a front pew, singing and laughing together. Irene Nxumalo, 69, and Sheila Mkhomude, 71, met in the church choir at Regina Mundi, and ever since then we are bosom buddies, Mkhomude said. The pair appreciated the African songs, they said, whistling with appreciation for the orchestra and the choirs.

Beethoven made them emotional: What was the language they were singing? Mkhomude asked. They also loved the national anthem, which the orchestra has played at the start of each concert on this tour.

Not ours, Mkhomude clarified. Yours!

She then sang its melody, using la la instead of words.

This ones new to us, so we love it.

Scars from apartheid battle

As musicians arrived at Regina Mundi for rehearsal Friday afternoon, the churchs caretaker, Danny Dube, was just wrapping up a tour.

The community has worked to repair the church in recent years, redoing the roof and the windows, he told a small group of tourists. But church leaders left bullet holes in the churchs ceiling from a 1976 uprising, when police shot into the sanctuary at young, peaceful protesters trying to find refuge there.

Its good to have a few reminders, said Alice Pescuric, a visitor from Pittsburgh.

Yes, it is, Dube replied.

Visitors can find history in every corner of Regina Mundi, including a visitors log that includes Mandela and, in 2011, former First Lady Michelle Obama. But in many ways, its a humble church, not made for symphony orchestras. In order to stage this concert, Classical Movements had to build a stage. Move pews. Add lighting. Remove and then replace concrete bollards outside the church to make room for the orchestras trucks.

The continent-crossing choir, made up of about 50 members of the Minnesota Chorale and more from the Johannesburg-based Gauteng Choristers, sang together in a handful of languages, including traditional African songs in Sotho and Zulu and Beethoven in German.

Symphonic music is still taken as an elite thing in South Africa, said Siyabonga Maqungo, the tenor soloist on Beethovens Ninth Symphony. Maqungo was born in Soweto, grew up in the nearby township of Katlehong and now lives in Germany. When he heard Minnesota was bringing a concert to Soweto, I was already sold, he said. Because I want us to wipe away this narrative of classical or symphonic music being only for the elite.

Maqungo pointed to a line in Ode to Joy, which translates as: All men are made brothers/ Where your gentle wings abide.

When I think of Mandela, he said, I think of Beethoven.

David Mennicke, a tenor section leader for the Minnesota Chorale, said he has sung Beethovens Ninth many, many times.

But to sing it in this context with brothers and sisters from halfway across the world that feeling, that sentiment, that idea of all humanity becoming brothers and sisters.

Were actually doing that, becoming that. That was the goal of the trip, and thats whats being achieved.

Jenna Ross 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna

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