Thursday, August 30, 2018

Emotions revisited

Stanley - Thursday

As a South African by birth, I joined millions of others in celebrating the 100thanniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. He was my hero, and I cried when he was released from years and years of incarceration, and I cried when he died.

And tears came to my eyes last week in a most unexpected way.

When I arrived in Minneapolis in late spring, I learned that the Minneapolis Orchestra, under the baton of Osmo Vänskä, was going to visit South Africa this August in celebration of Mandela’s birth. They were going to give five concerts in different parts of the country, stopping on the way in London for an appearance at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.

Fortunately for me, the orchestra was going to play most of the works planned for South Africa during its annual Sommerfest before they left. And what a Sommerfest it was! Not only traditional masterpieces, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its wonderful Ode to Joy in the final movement sung by South African soloists, but also a tribute to Mandela by South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen titled Harmonia Ubuntu, specially commissioned for the tour. There were groups from South Africa, with African jazz, vocals, and the famous a capella group, Ladysmith Mambazo.

But there was more – talks by Mandela’s daughter and other prominent South Africans - and a series of video tributes, projected above the orchestra, from notables such as Walter Mondale, Madeleine Albright, and Yoyo Ma. The Yoyo Ma tribute was particularly special – after his verbal tribute, Ma started playing the famous melody from the largo movement of Dvorak’s New World symphony. As he played, the orchestra joined in, initially so softly that it was difficult to notice, then as Ma’s cello faded out, it took over. You can listen to the melody here– it starts 50 seconds from the beginning.

All the concerts were wonderful, but I’ll take two memories with me. Throughout Sommerfest, both classical and African music was played. When the orchestra was doing what they did best, the audience was quiet and rapt. When the African groups played, the audience was animated, some singing, some dancing. There was even some ululating. I loved the contrast. And I loved the fact that the series brought so many new people to Orchestra Hall.

The second memory is of a concert of protest music, titled Speaking Truth to PowerEach piece was prefaced by a brief talk on what the protest was about. The audience was really drawn into the music because of the explanations. Works on the program include John Corigliano’s Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance, written in response to the AIDS crisis; Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima; and William Grant Still’s In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy, among others. The whole evening was incredibly moving.

As Sommerfest progressed, it became increasingly obvious to me the huge amount of work that had gone into making both Sommerfest and the South African tour possible. And the huge amount of money – taking a full symphony orchestra with their instruments, plus chorus, and hangers-on – not only to South Africa, but also between the various cities with only days between concerts. The program indicated that a substantial contribution had been made by an anonymous couple. Must have been millions of dollars.

Here is a short clip of the orchestra's joyous welcome to Cape Town, and members of the orchestra commenting on the effect on them of audience enthusiasm.

Different friends of mine in South Africa sent me reports on the various concerts, which all started with the national anthems of South Africa and the USA. What a way to engage the audience right away, young and old!

All included the commissioned work and encores including well known South Africa pieces, including a specially arranged version of the unofficial national anthem, Shosholoza, an old song about the train that brought workers to the mines. And here's the original with English translation. All were marked by joyous receptions, active audiences, and singing and dancing long after the concert ended.

The orchestra in Johannesburg
Minnesota Public Radio broadcast the concerts, and the one that caused me to cry again was held in the sprawling predominantly Black suburb of Johannesburg, called Soweto, where Mandela spent a lot of his time, and which was the centre of the anti-apartheid movement. The venue was the Regina Mundi church which was a venue often used by anti-apartheid protesters.

 You can listen to the whole concert here. It is difficult to explain the emotions I and many of my friends feel when something like this happens in a country that only thirty years ago was still under the apartheid government. The country faces huge challenges and will do so for years to come, but the transformation is astonishing and despite the problems, there is optimism. And music brings people together.

Two other things made the tour special – the first tour of South Africa by a professional orchestra. Throughout the tour, members of the orchestra spent a great deal of time working with local musicians and visiting local schools. From what I have read, memories of these interactions will be the lasting ones for many of the orchestra’s musicians.

Here is a short clip of the Minnesota Chorale working with the Gauteng Choristers – they formed a huge chorus for many works including Beethoven’s Ninth. It must have been a challenge – the Minnesotans learning how to pronounce African words, clicks included, and the South Africans learning how to pronounce the German words of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

The second special aspect was particularly important for me. The whole Music for Mandela effort, including Sommerfest and the tour, was done in collaboration with Books for Africa – my favourite charity. Not only did it collect books at orchestra hall during Sommerfest, but it delivered 42,000 books to the local Soweto community, including 12,000 to a Soweto school, Missourilaan Secondary School. Too bad it wasn’t called Minnesotalaan Secondary School! (Hint, hint: my effort to help send 42,000 books to South Africa is halfway funded. Your donation will help get the container on the high seas. You can donate here.)

South Africa is a country of music – people are always singing. It is part of the country’s DNA. Unfortunately that part of the DNA passed me by. Here is a one hour medley of amazing South African performers, including Pumeza Matshikiza, Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the Soweto String Quartet.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this and linking in the music I'm crying just reading your post and will cry listening to the African music and the people's response.
    Yes, South Africa is a country of music.
    How I remember Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

    1. Thanks Kathy. It is difficult to explain why I and many others who were actively involved in trying to get rid of apartheid get so emotional when we are reminded of the iniquities that fellow (second class) citizens had to endure. And when we see South Africans of all colours enjoying themselves together despite the ongoing problems yet to be solved.

  2. Tears here, too, Stan. And vivid memories of Soweto and its apartheid museum, particularly my favorite film clip of Madiba standing in the back of a convertible, circling the stadium at the celebration of his election. The crowd cheering and dancing. His million-watt smile, that look of an archangel, and the conviction that a human being could be that throughly beautiful of soul. Thank you for this. It sings to me.

  3. I was at the concert in Johannesburg. I can only agree with everything Stan said. It was unforgettable right from the first moment when a couple of musicians greeted the audience at the auditorium. A wonderful celebration.

  4. What a wonderful tribute you shared, Stan. Thank you. And even more, thank you for the music. I’m listening to it here to drown out the disco.

  5. Love the photo of the children at the bottom.
    Yes, Mandela was an is a hero to people around the world.

    I must find the Johannesburg concert. I remember when Mandela was released from prison, the joy that the South Africa people felt and millions worldwide. And then when he was elected president!