Looking Back at the Minnesota Orchestra’s August 2018 Tour of South Africa

By Marcia Peck

For me, it was “Shosholoza.” The Minnesota Orchestra had just played a full concert plus encores in Regina Mundi, the modest Catholic church in Soweto that represents the heart and soul of the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa. Could a well-meaning American orchestra, largely white, credibly perform “Shosholoza,” South Africa’s most close-to-the-heart song?

We had come to South Africa on an 11-day, five-city concert tour, which celebrated Nelson Mandela’s birth and included meaningful work with students. We performed in Cape Town at a beautifully renovated City Hall; in Durban, where many of us put our toes in the Indian Ocean for the first time; and at the University of Pretoria. We would perform again at City Hall in Johannesburg the following night. But this night’s performance was one of the most moving. 

From Johannesburg, we had been bussed into the 77-square-mile Township, one of many fenced communities throughout the country where “non-whites” were required to live until Apartheid ended in 1990. Although life has improved since then, we still passed vast areas of chilling poverty, tiny shacks made of bits of tin and rubbish, with public port-o-potties serving as the only plumbing. The church itself boasted a small bathroom tacked onto the back, a few outdoor steps away.

In Soweto there was no restaurant able to accommodate the 225 musicians, staff, choir, and tour guests for dinner. And so between rehearsal and concert, we were bussed to a large tent with tables set up wedding-style next to a cafe that served a buffet of African dishes by now familiar to us: pap—that stiff, fluffy porridge of maize meal not unlike grits—squash, pumpkin, a spinach dish creamy with ground peanuts, and meat. Lots of meat. Grilled rump steaks, roast chicken, curried Karoo lamb, oxtail potjie (an oxtail stew), and bobotie, similar to moussaka.

Marcia Peck and the Minnesota Orchestra work with the South African National Youth Orchestra (SANYO)
Marcia Peck and the Minnesota Orchestra work with the South African National Youth Orchestra (SANYO)

It was a beautiful meal that encapsulated the spirit of the tour: throughout our time in South Africa, the audiences, the eager students we worked with, and the bustling, generous, boisterous, exuberant culture we encountered were for us, in every sense, a feast.

There was no stage at the church (an enormous platform had to be built over the altar for the occasion), no dressing rooms (our ingenious stage crew had organized our instrument and wardrobe trunks to form little privacy areas near the doors), and no lobby to accommodate the crowd of concert-goers that overwhelmed the tables set up outside, serving as a makeshift box-office. 


Fortunately, the weather was glorious. As the concert began, sun streamed through the modern stained-glass windows that both depict painful history and celebrate hard-won gains. I wasn’t the only one who cried with pride and awe as we played and an audience of 1,300 locals plus a contingent of Minnesota fans and patrons sang the South African national anthem and then our own. Choral tradition is mighty in South Africa, and, well, it took my breath away.

The winter sun set, the makeshift stage lighting proved adequate, and we set about playing Sibelius’ En Saga; Bernstein’s Overture to Candide; Harmonia Ubuntu, a work by South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen commissioned specifically for our tour; and the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th, during which 50 members of the Minnesota Chorale joined with the South African Gauteng Choristers. Every work on the program meant something special to this location and this audience. And then, just before we dove into “Shosholoza,” I took a deep breath, and my mind raced through the powerful impressions that this trip had already left on me.

“It was a beautiful meal that encapsulated the spirit of the tour: throughout our time in South Africa, the audiences, the eager students we worked with, and the bustling, generous, boisterous, exuberant culture we encountered were for us, in every sense, a feast.”

Among our greatest joys had been our opportunities to work with students: coaching a rehearsal with Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra or engaging in a cultural-exchange performance in the under-resourced township of Elsie’s River. When Elsie’s River’s Eurocon primary school burned down and the government proposed sending the children out to schools in other communities, the parents banded together and raised the money to rebuild. The school, mostly basic concrete, was spiffy with colorful fresh paint.

Our visit included performances by string, woodwind, and brass ensembles, all from the orchestra, as well as a captivating concert by the school choir. When they sang “I Am a Small Part of the World,” I thought I saw in each excited, shy, proud face that this was a day that would stick in his or her memory for a very long time. Hope, excitement, a little trepidation: I read all those expressions. But perhaps I was seeing my own face at that age.

At the University of Pretoria, we worked on Sibelius’ Second Symphony in a “side-by-side” rehearsal with the South African Youth Symphony Orchestra, where the stage was so elbow-to-elbow that I feared for my cello. I sat next to a 22-year-old man who teaches cello and traveled 18 hours by bus from Durban to be there.

Later we broke into sectionals to work on dynamics, bow distribution, and whatever else the students wanted to address. It looked like mice had nibbled the hair on many of the students’ bows; chin-rests were largely absent. Nevertheless they were, to a person, up to the challenge of working on the difficulties of a complicated symphony like Sibelius 2.


We learned of one young man whose church had provided a smart phone and enough data over a number of years for him to teach himself to play the violin by watching YouTube. He had just gotten into the University of Pretoria. “Of course not everything was in order,” said his orchestra director, “but there was a real beauty to his playing.” Stories like that prompted violinist Milana Reiche and cellist Katja Linfield to hire a driver familiar with a particular Soweto neighborhood and give an impromptu violin-cello concert to a group of rapt children.

Our engagement activities were often chaotic, always tremendously rewarding.  Medtronic Foundation and the US Embassy provided generous funds for tickets and transportation for students and local audiences who otherwise could not have attended concerts or educational events.

The trip itself was first envisioned four years ago, when our music director, Osmo Vänskä, conducted SANYO, the South African National Youth Orchestra. He was so impressed with their work that he dreamed of bringing the Minnesota Orchestra there as a way not only of encouraging them, but also building audiences for them and for other visiting orchestras. It was an idea with enormous logistical challenges, and his vision and the extraordinary capacity of our CEO Kevin Smith to undertake the project ultimately made this a reality. But they couldn’t have done it without the support of a visionary board chair, and the MO’s brilliant, steady, meticulous, (and beloved!) staff, led by Beth Kellar-Long. Joel Mooney and our stage crew safely shepherded 84 trunks weighing seven tons throughout South Africa with utmost precision and grace. They are simply the best in the business. 

And still that wouldn’t have been enough. There were governmental and diplomatic connections to secure, venues to book, stages to build, outreach opportunities and collaborations to organize, and instrument safety to ensure. It took two and a half years for Classical Movements, a Virginia-based company with intimate knowledge of South Africa, to finalize the details. I describe the 14 members of the staff as miracle workers.


But I mentioned “Shosholoza.” 

In rehearsal, Osmo often says to us, “Take a risk.” That night, in the packed Soweto church, nearly all the risks had been faced and overcome, save one. Osmo cued the single bass drum. One drum swelled to two, then three. The room vibrated with a distinctly African rhythm, powerful, yet contained. Marimba joined, then brass. Tension built. Volume built. And finally the entire orchestra belted out the traditional miners’ song that Mandela sang while doing hard labor. In an arrangement by a Finnish composer (Jaakko Kuusisto) played by an American orchestra for African audiences, we played and sang full-throttle the emblem of suffering, hope, and solidarity that has become a kind of unofficial national anthem.

The audience roared with approval. With deafening abandon they sang, danced, hugged each other, and cried. “Shosholoza.” And I was certain, not that our tour had changed South Africa, but that South Africa had changed us.  

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This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Strings magazine.