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The Minnesota Orchestra’s extraordinary experience in Soweto

The emotional heart of the tour — the event that seemed to encapsulate the tour as a whole — was a sold-out concert at the historic Regina Mundi Catholic Church.

Gauteng Choristers, the Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Orchestra chatting during intermission at the concert in Soweto's Regina Mundi Church.
MinnPost photo by Scott Chamberlain

Scott Chamberlain, a member of the Minnesota Chorale, just returned from the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour of South Africa.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s South Africa tour, in partnership with the Minnesota Chorale, boasted a rich and varied banquet of events that took place in a number of cities across the country. But it seems clear that the emotional heart of the tour — the event that seems to encapsulate the tour as a whole — was a sensational, sold-out concert at Regina Mundi Catholic Church in the heart of Soweto.

As a performer at that Aug. 17 concert it is a bit awkward for me to report on it, but I wanted to provide Minnesota readers a chance to feel the incredible energy of the event.

To begin, it’s important to understand just how historic it was to perform at Regina Mundi. It looks humble; while large in scale and prominently placed, Regina Mundi feels like a friendly, normal, busting neighborhood church. Unlike Notre Dame or the other great cathedrals of Europe, it was not built to impress visitors, but to serve the community. And yet, there are few buildings that have been so powerfully sanctified, in both sacred and secular terms, by the events in history. Throughout the late 20th century, Regina Mundi served as a center of the anti-apartheid resistance — a history that is very much alive and remembered today.

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Before the concert began, Mariellen Jacobson and Jeffrey Stirling, who traveled with the Minnesota Chorale as non-singing guests, met a woman named Teresa who provided a personal link to the church’s momentous past. As Mariellen relates:

“As we were waiting for the concert to start, this beautiful, 80-something woman came shuffling down the aisle assisted by a young helper. We got to talking with her and learned that she was a parishioner of the church. She spoke passionately about the past, and what it was like living through those tumultuous times. In the student uprisings of 1976, some of the young schoolboys fled to Regina Mundi Church to escape the police’s bullets and tear gas. The police followed them right into the church and fired live ammunition inside the sanctuary. I had read that you can still see bullet holes from that event, so I asked Teresa about it. She said ‘Look up at the crucifix. You’ll see that Jesus has three fingers on his right hand and five fingers on his left hand. Yes, one of the bullets had hit the sculpture.’ And there it was. This brought it home just how real these events were … this wasn’t something for the history book, but part of the life story of real people.”

The church continued to be important throughout the anti-apartheid struggle. Leaders of the African National Conference held meetings at Regina Mundi’s lower levels, while the choir loudly “rehearsed” in the main sanctuary to thwart government agents from listening in. After the fall of apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the building to host the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that chronicled the abuses of the apartheid system and laid the groundwork for building South Africa’s new, multiracial democracy.

Yet today, Regina Mundi was witness to a different kind of history — the arrival of a major American orchestra for a concert of healing, cultural diplomacy and unity.

And Soweto was ready. Long before the concert got under way, a substantial crowd had arrived at the church’s gates, with an excited air of anticipation. Many had never been to a live classical concert before and jumped at a chance to hear how one sounded. Perhaps best of all, a large number of young children were on hand, as Minnesotan Jill Chamberlain discovered. Cousins Tebogo (age 11) and Keo (age 10) were brought by their mother/aunt Josephine. They were seated next to Jill, and once settled, they cheerfully drilled her about concert protocol, how the music would sound … and asked such important questions as what kind of restaurants there were in America and how Americans made their porridge. All in all, excited concertgoers overwhelmed the ticket takers at the door, forcing the concert to start 20 minutes late.

Once it began, it was clear how much of a shared experience this was to be. With Osmo Vänskä leading from the podium, the singers of the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers and 29:11 filled the aisles and belted out the South African national anthem. We were loud, but we were almost certainly drowned out by the 1,300 voices of audience who added their voices to ours. It was a moment of welcome, pride and shared exuberance. The middle-aged woman next to me was wonderfully fun to sing with — she had a voice that would make any singing group proud. And best of all, she lost none of her exuberance when the orchestra followed up with the Star-Spangled Banner. She didn’t know the words, but effortlessly switched to “da-da-da,” sung with an enormous grin. She loved it.  I rarely get hugs handshakes from audience members during an actual performance, but this audience member was giving them out aplenty.

Stained glass windows in Regina Mundi
MinnPost photo by Scott Chamberlain
Stained glass windows in Regina Mundi, celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela.

Vänskä opened the concert proper with a work by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, En Saga (A Tale). It was a bold choice; En Saga is one of Sibelius’ most popular works, but it is hardly a rouser like Finlandia that would be guaranteed to get the audience on its feet. Principal Clarinet Gabriel Campos Zamora and Principal Cello Tony Ross were exceptional in their solo moments, but Principal Viola Becca Albers was a particular standout in stitching the sound together and shaping it. It was a remarkable performance.

But the party was just getting started. Vänskä next turned to a brand new work, Harmonia Ubuntu, by South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen. This work featuring soprano, soloist Goitsemang Lehobye, sets words by Nelson Mandela over a richly sculpted orchestral sound-world. And as Goitsemang boldly strode out to center stage in gorgeous traditional dress, the audience went absolutely crazy. I was so, so happy about the inclusion of this piece. It was good, and deserves wider performance. But more than that, it proudly demonstrated that this concert — and by extension, this entire tour — wasn’t about simply performing western art music at local audiences, but actually engaging audiences and performers alike in a shared musical exchange. It showed curiosity about other music, and a willingness to learn about it and embrace it. It showed respect.

And the audience absolutely loved it.

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At the work’s end, Goitsemang and Osmo were greeted with an ear-splitting roar that went way beyond appreciation … it showed love. And from that moment, the audience and musicians were one. We were in this together. The orchestra followed it up with a sparkling rendition of Bernstein’s Overture to Candide that again drew an enthusiastic response, and set the stage for a barn-burner of a second half.

* * *

Never in my life would I have thought that the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would lead off a set; it is famously one of the most athletic, brutal works to sing in the standard repertoire. But there it was. It was the perfect piece to sing at Regina Mundi — a musical celebration of our shared humanity and universal joy.

And the combined voices of the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers, and 29:11 made sure that Beethoven’s song of joy shook Heaven itself. It had been beyond wonderful singing with our South African partners over the last week—I doubt I could ever find the words to express how powerful their sound is. I’ve never heard anything like it, and trust me, I’ve heard a lot of choral music. As an aside, I will forever cherish a certain moment where we all come in for the dramatic restatement of the main theme. I had an excellent view of the orchestra’s president, Kevin Smith, and his wife — and when that wave of sound hit them, they both collectively snapped their necks back, looked straight up, listened to the reverb in the ceiling, and in perfect unison mouthed “WOW!” If the audience was fired up before, they were absolutely on fire at the end of the Beethoven. 

And with that, the concert really got going. Next, Vänskä programmed a series of South African songs that cranked up the excitement even further. Akhala Amaqhude Amabili is a setting of two Zulu folksongs, linked by a shared motive of a rooster call (Kikilikigi! in Zulu) to rouse up the community and get ready for the day. The audience loved it. 

Then the massed singers performed an a cappella work, Bawo Tixo Somandla, conducted by Xolani Mootane — and it brought the house down. Back in the 1970s, the work was originally written as an anti-apartheid protest song, asking God the insistent question, “Father, God omnipotent, what have we done? Why do we kill each other like this?” Over time, its edges have worn down slightly, and it is seen more as a generalized song of triumph under adversity… but  the people in Soweto know its origins. This was a work incredibly important to me — singing that song, while I could look around the church and literally see bullet holes left behind by paramilitary raids, was powerful beyond words. The audience had already started singing along when Xolani turned on the podium and gestured for the crowd to rise to their feet. They did so with a roar of voices and began dancing with us. It was a musical spectacle that will always, always stay with me, as we together turned that song into a cry for unity and an end to violence.

This led to a more gentle, but no less celebratory song by Michael Mosoeu Moerane, Ruri (Truly). Sung in Sotho, Ruri is a song celebrating God’s creation, where all things—even ferocious crocodiles — are part of a harmonious whole. It is a much-loved, South African favorite.

From left to right: Josephine, Tebogo, Keo and Jill Chamberlain
MinnPost photo by Scott Chamberlain
From left to right: Josephine, Tebogo, Keo and Jill Chamberlain chatted about the concert.

The roof was then blown off yet again with Usilethela Uxolo, a festive song honoring Nelson Mandela based on a work by South African jazz legend Stompie Mavi. This time the audience needed no invitation — as soon as the chorus came in and started dancing on stage, the audience followed suit. It was wonderful, crazy, musical bedlam, with everyone onstage and offstage joining in the celebration. My God what a party! Seriously… World Cup soccer crowds are more reserved. The roar that filled that church when we were done about shook Regina Mundi off its foundation.

Of course an encore had to happen.

As they had done elsewhere on the South African tour, the orchestra launched into Shosholoza, a beloved standard that functions as a second national anthem for South Africa. The orchestra players set aside their instruments and belted out the first verse through their voices alone, to the rousing support of the audience. When the chorus came in, bedlam broke out all over again. Dancing! Singing! Bigger dancing, and bigger singing! When it was over we got the biggest roar of them all — and that’s saying something.

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And then, there was one more moment of magic that for me topped them all.

As we were coming down from our music-induced frenzy and preparing to leave the stage, a group of guys from the Gauteng Choristers decided we weren’t done yet. After a rapid-fire discussion, they started to belt out a song of their own. Soon, all the South African singers caught the tune, and in voices again geared to shake the earth and rattle the heavens, began singing and dancing us off the stage in a completely unscripted kind of exit music, to the continued cheers of the audience. It was remarkable. The orchestra members, in the process of putting their instruments away, stopped with wide-eyed amazement and dived for their cellphones to snap pictures. We in the Chorale had no idea about what the words were, but hey … when we find ourselves in a midst of a musical afterparty, we learn fast and join right in. Soon we were singing as well, slowly working our way off stage. But the singing didn’t stop. To our astonishment, our South African peers enveloped us and began marching with us outside the building, and around the church in a musical parade that lasted about 15 minutes. People on the outside rushed forward and joined in the song, reaching in through the fence to give us high fives as we danced across the grounds.

I have never felt so much joy, so much pure, unadulterated joy. Music did that. Music brought us together, wiped out any petty distinctions among us, and for a moment made us one, wonderful family. The universal joy envisioned in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy became real — right there in Soweto.

You can listen to the Soweto concert online.