Minnesota Orchestra Builds Musical Bridges in South Africa

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A female singer prepares with an orchestra seated behind her.
The Minnesota Orchestra performed on its "Music for Mandela" tour in South Africa in August 2018

Minnesota Orchestra Builds Musical Bridges in South Africa

In August 2018, my colleagues and I at the United States Mission to South Africa welcomed the Minnesota Orchestra as it embarked on its Music for Mandela tour, the first-ever tour of a full American orchestra to South Africa. Americans have long admired Nelson Mandela, respecting his commitment to moral leadership, democracy, and freedom for all – shared values we still hold close in our hearts today, and which continue to open the door for dialogue between our two countries. 

Over the course of the 12-day tour, the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale, in partnership with Classical Movements, collaborated with more than 800 South African musicians and 20 leading musical organizations as it performed in Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, and Johannesburg. Though the U.S. Mission to South Africa provided support to the Minnesota Orchestra, the major financial contributions to the tour were made through the generosity and initiative of private American citizens and corporations that value the warm ties between our countries, which have continued to deepen since Nelson Mandela made his first visit to the United States many years ago.

The Minnesota Orchestra performed on its "Music for Mandela" tour across South Africa in August 2018.

Inspired by Music Director Osmo Vänskä’s collaboration with the South African National Youth Orchestra, Music for Mandela was a brilliant musical exchange that showcased pieces that derive from South African, American, and European musical traditions, from Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies to Harmonia Ubuntu by South Africa’s own Bongani Ndodana-Breen. Durban Consul-General Sherry Zalika Sykes described the series, saying, “Music is one of the tools that unite people and promote unity. As we celebrate Mandela’s centenary, we have a great pleasure to be part of this celebration and we will always support this kind of music.” 

The Minnesota Orchestra also participated in a series of cultural exchanges with local musicians through the Cape Music Institute, the Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, the KwaZulu-Natal Youth Wind Band, the South African National Youth Orchestra, the New Hope International Exchange, and the University of Pretoria. 

Minnesota Chorale singer Scott Chamberlain described the power and importance of musical exchange when he wrote, “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.” 

Over the 12-day tour of the Minnesota Orchestra, however, perspectives were changed, connections were made, and our shared values were strengthened.

About the Author: Jessye Lapenn serves as the Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.


Jessye Lapenn

Contributor bio

Jessye Lapenn serves as the Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa.