It’s difficult to believe, but the Minnesota Orchestra/Minnesota Chorale tour to South Africa is fast approaching. I was fortunate enough to accompany the Orchestra’s tour to Cuba in 2015 as a part of the media contingent (my blogs about Cuba and the stories I wrote for MinnPost while on the tour can be found here), but this time around I’m also taking part as a performer—singing as a member of the Minnesota Chorale in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and a variety of South African music.
And you better believe I’m thrilled to be taking part!
Well, after much preparation and planning, rehearsals are finally under way.
And it’s already been remarkable.
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The South Africa project kicked off immediately following another, massive collaboration between the Chorale and the Orchestra—a joint performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. For those who don’t know it, Belshazzar’s Feast is a big, loud, athletic piece that pulls out all the stops. Written for massed chorus, double chorus, and two semi-choruses (let alone an expanded percussion section and two additional brass bands), it tells the story of a Babylonian bacchanal of blasphemy that is ultimately cut short by the wrath of God. And again, it is loud.
So, as we staggered in on Monday, ready to start in a new project featuring the similarly big, loud, athletic Beethoven’s Ninth… well, I think I speak for many of the singers in reporting we feeling a bit worse for wear.
But tired or not, we would not have missed this for the world. This is the kind of project we hunger for… a project that brings together two key aspects of the Chorale’s mission. On the one hand, we love the symphonic choral repertoire—after all, that’s the core of what we do. Plus, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is an old friend of ours, and many of us would walk through broken glass to perform with our good friends Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra. But more than that, the Chorale is committed to using music to build connections across communities, and across the world. This is, in fact, the foundation of our award-winning Bridges program, which was launched in 1994 to build musical and social “bridges” to diverse populations. Over the years we’ve worked with musical ensembles from Africa, Japan and Venezuela, as well as groups ranging from differently-abled dancers to memory care patients to find ways to bring the community together through shared music. This is, quite simply, what we do.
So as vocally haggard as we might have been for that first rehearsal, we were anxious to start up this new project… and in particular to meet our musical collaborators.
And so, at our first rehearsal we got to meet the exceptional group 29:11. This ensemble, based in Cape Town, is here as part of a broader tour to the upper Midwest, and they will be singing with us for the tour’s kick-off concerts in Minneapolis in July. They take their name (and inspiration) from the Bible verse Jerimiah 29:11, which reads: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you Hope and a future.’” The group sees music as part of its ministry to bring about reconciliation and promote cross-cultural understanding.
And they’re a great group of young people.
Before the rehearsal got underway, I was able to talk to my “stand mate” as it were, and hear about them and their journey. I reacted with sympathetic horror when I learned the singers arrived in Minneapolis the first week of April—right before a freak, late blizzard dumped 22” of snow here. He remarked that the storm was, in his own words, “memorable.” Welcome to Minnesota!
As we officially got under way, the power and the enormous significance of this project was quickly hammered home for us. Our Artistic Director, Kathy Saltzman Romey, asked their director and co-founder Brendon Adams to say a few words about the music we were to perform. He asked us to pull out the song Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, and said the following:
The song is straightforward; it is a call to God to spread his blessings on our land, and to bring peace for all people. But under the old regime in South Africa, this was an outlawed song. You could be shot for singing it. You could be “disappeared” for singing it—arrested by the police and held for months or years. Can you imagine? Being shot for asking God to bless your country? But so it was. Singing this song was a dangerous act of protest. But now, it is our national anthem.
That hit us hard.
This was a song the Chorale has performed in the past, and intellectually we knew its origins as a protest song. But to hear that candid introduction, by someone who only a few years ago would have himself suffered the horrors he described just for singing it with us, was more humbling that I can express. As I sang it together with my new friend from Cape Town, the words caught in my throat. You immediately could see the pride, the defiance… and the realness of it all. The song transformed from a series of notes and squiggles on a piece of paper to something far, far more precious.
That feeling was reinforced when Brendon next introduced Bawo Thixo Somandla. This is a song with a straightforward religious text, but with a message that ran far deeper.
Father, God Omnipotent,
What is my transgression?
What wrong have we done you, O Lord,
Father, God Omnipotent?
What have we done?
What have we done, my Lord,
That we kill each other like this!
Father, God Omnipotent?
In [this] world
We are loaded with troubles,
Father, God Omnipotent.
During Apartheid, this “straightforward” religious message was perhaps the only way a people could express their deepest, most profound feelings without retaliation.
But there is more. What is so remarkable is that while these songs clearly acknowledge and reflect a horrific past, they have transmuted these dark feelings into statements about hope and endurance. They are now songs about the triumph over adversity. During the break, some of the singers of 29:11 gave an impromptu performance of their own arrangement of Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika that sent shivers down our collective backs:
And that’s what strikes me about this project. Through their friendship and this shared experience of music, these musicians have made a powerful statement about the importance of hope, and the importance of transformation. Of seeing what possibilities are out there, and how we have to make use of them. For South Africa, of course, but for all of us. Too often we lose sight of these things. In juggling our own busy lives, we lose perspective.
But this project, this music, and this exceptional group of singers is bringing it all back. And I, for one, am grateful.