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Minnesota Orchestra sets its sights on Africa

Osmo Vanska rehearses with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in 2014. The orchestra, which successfully toured Cuba in 2015, has just announced an upcoming tour to South Africa in August. Photo for The Washington Post by Jenn Ackerman

The Minnesota Orchestra is going to South Africa this summer to honor the centenary of Nelson Mandela - the first major professional orchestra from North America to visit that country.

The orchestra will perform five concerts in the course of an 11-day tour (Aug. 8-19) with its music director, Osmo Vanksa, that also includes master classes and other community activities. Classical Movements, the Alexandria, Virginia-based company that is making the tour arrangements, also commissioned an original work by an African composer, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, with texts by Mandela, that the orchestra will perform alongside Beethoven on its five tour stops - including a concert in Soweto, the township where Mandela once lived, and a famous site in the struggle against apartheid.

A seed for the tour was planted when Vanska led the South African National Youth Orchestra in 2014, and hoped to return (side-by-side rehearsal and master classes with members of this orchestra will be a part of the Minnesota Orchestra's Pretoria stop).

Another impetus was the positive experience the orchestra had when it became the first North American orchestra to visit Cuba after the easing of trade and travel restrictions with that country. The tour, in May 2015, was a high point in what has been a happy tale of recovery and growth for an orchestra that for 18 months (until early 2014) was best known for enduring a lockout at the hands of its management, among questions of whether it would survive.

It has not only survived but prospered - and can afford to embark on a major tour, which is largely funded by two anonymous donors.

The orchestra's annual Sommerfest, 10 concerts held from July 13 to Aug. 1 (over Mandela's actual 100th birthday), will be centered on Mandela and include the world premiere of Ndodana-Breen's work, which will feature the South African soprano be Goitsemang Lehobye, now studying at the University of Michigan. In South Africa, the orchestra's selections will include the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with members of the Minnesota Chorale joining the Gauteng Choristers, a successful South African chorus, and a quartet of South African soloists.

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