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Board Member - Giacomo D'Aurora

African Adventure Blog


It's Saturday afternoon and I am sitting in the  Atlanta airport. I am on my way to Johannesburg, South Africa to celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela's birth. The MN Orchestra was invited to perform at the celebration. Osmo Vanska, the director of  MN Orchestra, directed the South African Youth Symphony about 4 years ago. With his personality, his musicality and his keen sense if interpersonal respect, he touched the  hearts of the South Africans. A few years later, they requested that the MN Orchestra play for the centenary.  In addition to South African music, the program includes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which requires a chorus. As the official choral group of the MN Orchestra, we were invited to participate.

When this project was first proposed last year, I was immediately intriqued by it. Because the MN Chorale is a project based chorale, each member indicates which projects he/ she is interested in singing. From the group of interested parties, our director Kathy Salzman Romey  selects the voices which will create the sound desired.

I indicated that  I was interested in the project. There are professonal singers, choral directors, music professors, voice instructors and voice coaches in the  MN Chorale. When I had my successful audition in 2011 and attended my first rehearsal, I was humbled. I thought that my memberships in the ND Glee Club and Christ the King choir prepared me. I soon realized that the level  of talent and skill was superior to any  musical group with which I have sung.

So, when the roster was posted and I saw my name , I was surprised, excited and humbled. 

In mid July, the MN Orchestra and the MN Chorale gave two concerts in Minneapolis to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday. Friday evening, July 20 we sang a program of African music. On Saturday night July 21 we performed Beethoven's Ninth. A group of Cape Town singers: "29/11" joined us for both concerts. In our rehearsals they taught us the pronunciation of the words for the African songs and we taught them the German for Beethoven's Ninth. They had never sung this classical masterpiece and they were very excited to learn and perform it. It is a joy working with these young singers. When we parted there were many smiles and hugs. Our lives have been enriched by their courage and enthusiam. 

It is Sunday afternoon. We departed from Atlanta on Delta 200 at 8:06 PM Saturday . We have 1 hour 29 minutes until  arrival in Johannesburg. 


We are into Day 3 of our ambassorial mission. I began Day 2 with a run through Sandton with three other chorale members. It was  challenging because it is hilly and at an altitude of 5800 feet above sea level.. At 1:00 we had our first rehearsal of the day reviewing our "encore American songs" . After three hours of practice, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant, salad, pasta and thin crusted pizza. Our second rehearsal was at 7:00 with the Gaeteng Choiristers of Sandton and "29:11" of Cape Town. 

The rehearsal with the Gaeteng Choristers and 29:11 was phenonmenal and quite emotional. The sound which the Chorister's possess, especially the basses, is one that we have never heard. These men have rich, deep, powerful voices and they can "move". We practiced the South African songs and Beethoven's Ninth. Most of these men have never song this classical piece. The two men on either side of me knew the German and pronounced it extremely well. 

Two songs which are quite moving are BAWO THIXO SOMANDLA (Father, O God, Omnipotent ...What have we done that we kill each other. I have an unceasing thob in my heart...May this cup pass from us) and USILETHELA UXOLO, the Nelson Mandela Protest Song (Mandela, bring us peace. You have been fighting for a lone time...Now we have received it. It is amazing to be part of this group who through their songs are sharing their history of pain, abuse, oppression and dehumanization with us. 

This morning my buddies ran again. It is an excellent way to acquaint oneself with the city and its citizens. After breakfast we boarded our buses to go to  the Nelson Mandela Museum. It chronicles the life of Mandela and tells the story of apartheid, the minority of white people,who oppressed, abused and killed both  blacks and colored people essentially out of ignorance, fear and power. It was hard to walk through it because photo after photo depicted the dehumanization of the black and colored people. After 1 1/2 hours of reading,  viewing and walking,  my stomach was in knots.  I was  feeling nausea. I had to leave. It was so overwhelming. It is so profoundly sad.

As we left the Museum, I had a sense that when we would sing the South African songs tonight our voices and expressions would reflect the pleas and sighs of the black and colored people in South Africa. We were conducted by Osmo Vanska, the director of the MN Orchestra. When we sang RURI and AHKALA, which we will sing accompanied by the orchestra,  Osmo had a look of delight and surprise on his face. In fact his demeanor was one of playfulness. We surprised him, and he in turn iinspired us all the more.

By the end of Tuesday, I was exhausted: the jet lag caught up with me. I will write more later.
Have a good day! Buona giornata!

Day 4 and Day 5

Well Day 4 (Wednesday) was full, real full. We were bused to Pretoria: the sites to be visited were Voortrekken, Freedom Trail, Union Station. We had our first rehearsal with the MN Orchestra, the four soloists, and the Gauteng Chorisiters and 29:11. 

It seemed ironic that the first site we explored today was Voortrekken. It is a beautiful "tower" , with a large rotunda. Covering the four walls is a concrete sculpture "mural" which depicts various  historical scenes of the white men conquering the black natives. After the tour of the Nelson Mandela Museaum and the History of Apartheid, I found it very curious and upsetting. The scene of the Captain being killed was labeled "murder", while the scenes of the natives being killed were labeled "battles". The aura was disturbing, even though the grounds were meticulously groomed with beautiful flowers, scrubs and trees. Inspite of it's beauty, Voortreeken was painful to experience.

We, then traveled a short distance to the Freedom Walk, the national monument erected to commerate the struggle for humanity and freedom and the resolution for reconciliation. On the outside of the building on every wall were the names of those people who fought for freedom. It is not a "war memorial" dedicated to all killed in a war: it is dedicated to those people, including international persons  who fought against apartheid and  for freedom.  Our guide, a man who commanded the attention of all of us and to whom most of us could listen to for days, pointed out that the Voortrekken Memorial is  in a straight line from the Freedom Walk. He told us that the Freedom Walk was "deliberately" situated  on a particular plot of land. The vision is that one day there will be a path from the Voortrekken Memorial to the  Freedom Walk to further  symbolize the "long walk" to freedom. There are those people who would like to have the Voortrekken Mormorial destroyed, espousing the "presentism" prevalent in the United States today. The belief that we should only live with the present value system, judging all past events by today's values and beliefs and removing any  historical rememberances of past., is dangerous. This persective negates the struggle and trauma our nations and people have endured or overcome to arrive at the present day "freedoms". As painful as the past has been, I believe we must never forget the atrocities. 

Before we had our  first rehearsal with the MN Orchestra and the soloists, we had an outdoor dinner which was a 'tradizional ' South African cuisine. It was delicious. I wanted more but refrained out of cuortesy. The rehearsal was once again amazing: the sound of the three chorale groups touched most of the members of the MN Orchestra and Osmo Vanska.

On Day 5 which required that we depart the hotel at 9:00, (too early for a run for the "Running Singers" because we needed  to eat and shower) for the FlipTown Youth Program. It is located on the outskirts of Flip Town, a squaters' city populated by thousands of families. It "borrows" electricity from the surrounding communities and it draws only  enough power for lights and small applicances.  Fliptowm has a limited supply of water to be used sparingly.   though the water  fountains are a gathering platee for the people but   unlike European piazzas, the water is not unlimited.   The FlipTown Youth Program goal is to give every child an education,  to feed the children, to instill in them hope, to find ways to leave the "squaters town" and to live a life of freedom. The children are adorable, with smiles are their faces, friendly and outgoing. My heart was touched when a 3 year old boy, walked out of his classroom, took my hand and walked me to the only indoor toilet. He was so excited! I was graced.

Between seeing the Fliptown Youth Program and eating luch we visited the Nelson Mandela house in Soweto. It was "under whelming" and, in my opinion "touristy".

Our buffet lunch of native  African foods at Wandy's Place in Soweto consisted of some of the  spiciest   and the best international food which I have ever eaten, we returned to the University of Pretoria to "surprise" the students participatimg in the Annual Spring Music Festival. We heard the top choir of the University singing complex chorale music and a choir of native black Africans who performed " traditional"  music with movement and incredible dance. As we watched them some of us thought: oh no, we are in over our head. However, our director Kathy Romey had selected the "perfect" repetirore and introduced us as "the geneartion preceeding you". She described  us, as musicians who like them sang in college choirs and continue that passion for singing even though most of us are non professional musicians. We sang four songs of varuious 'American' genre by  which they were mesmirized. Their eyes were glued  to us: they gave us a gift

Thursday night was a "free night". The members of the MN Chorale "descended upon" Johannesburg in various directions for dinner. I had the pleasure of dining  with Barbara , Deb , her sister Carole, Patrick, Bob and John. We ate at The Bitcher Shop and Grill, a steak house and we chose  South African meat dinners, including sausage, beef ribeye, ostrich and kudu  filets. They were delicious and only slightly  gamey.  I'd have them, again!!

I will post about Days 6 and 7, the concert  in Soweto (8/17) and the one in Johannesburg (8/18).

Buona giornata!

Day 6

                    Friday August 17 

We have reached Day #6: the first concert with the MN Orchestra. 

The "running singers" were able to "put in" three miles and  then have a leisurely breakfast. The run felt harder than either of the first two! And it invigorated us for the upcoming events of the day.

We traveled to  Soweto Friday afternoon for a rehearsal with the MN Orchestra, the soloists, and the Gauteng Choristers. When we arrived at Regina Mundi Catholic Church, I was struck that it a relatively modern structure similar to the parish where I worshiped as a child and adolescent: St.Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Canton Ohio. It was erected in 1962. As I departed from the bus, I immediarely felt a deep sense  of reverence, "heaviness", and holiness.  The church opened its doors to anti-apartheid groups, providing shelter to the activists. During the student uprising of 1976, the protesters/ activists fled to the Church to escape the bullets and tear gas of the police. However, the police followed the students into the Church firing their guns, damaging the marble altar and the crucifix. The bullet holes are still visible. It is also the site where Archbishop Emeritus presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1995-1998. 

The activity within the Church detracted from the "holiness": the MN Orchestra was setting up on the specially constructed stage, the  seating chart for the MN Chorale needed to be altered drasically because of space constraints, the media people where everywhere. Dessa was even there! Once  we were in our places on the elevated stage in front of the bullet ridden altar, our rehearsal began. It went very well: one can tell that things are going as desired when Osmo Vanska smiles after we 'nail' a  particularly troubling spot for the singer (ff to p: singing loudly and forcefully to singing softly in two measures or holding "Ihr" long enough before we sing "sturzt" on the correct beat).

After rehearsal all musicians, technical personal, the Borad members of the MN Orchestra who were guarantors of the project, and  local guests were served a delicious dinner with music provided by a jazz group from Soweto. There was much mingling between  Chorale members and MN Orchestra members.

When we arrived back at Regina Mundi Catholic Church, there  was a large number of people being admitted to the Church. I was overwhelmed with emotion by the diversity of the crowd, the majority of whom were dressed as if they were going to the opera. (Folks, Soweto is a city which houses generations of people forcefully removed from Johannesburg because they were black or colored. There are a number of large squater cities  within the city.) We handed  out MN Chorale pins to as many children as we could and the programs to the adults. Their smiles touched  my  heart. I was proud to be an ambassador of the USA yet ashamed of living in a country which currently has a government which is, at the very least, suspicious of minorities. The MN Chorale sang in the second half of the program. We began with the 4th movement of Beethoven's Ninth (Ode to Joy: a call for universal Harmony). The crowd gave us a rousing  standing ovation,  The remaining pieces of music were South African, two of which prompted people to "stand immediately and to join in singing and dancing." As I mentioned in an earlier entry,  '"Bawo Thixo Somandla " and "Usilthela Uxolo" are songs strongly identified in the fight of Apartheid and for freedom.  It is difficult to express the  feelings which  I experienced as  I saw this very diverse crowd, stand spontaneously applauding that we included these pieces of music in the program AND singing along and dancing in this phistorical and HOLY place. 

We knew that we gave excellent performances and we sang well. By their reaction, the people were touched by our sensitivity to their "Long Road to Freedom". Yet it was them who gave us a gift welcoming us into their community and permitting us to see their suffering, pain and joy and freedom.. I truly believe that this audience was the best group of people for whom I have ever performed.

I need to end for today: I am too emotional to continue writing tonight. I will share the events of and my thoughts about  Day 7 tomorrow. It deserves a stand alone section.

Thank you for reading.
Buona giornata!

Day 7

                          August 18, 2018

It is Day 7. We performed at 3:00 in a "grand old hall" 

It was gray, overcast and windy in the morning. The "singing runners" did not even attempt a run, as we were up late. While having a couple of glasses of wine, we had intense conversations about politics, religion and pedophilia. I went to bed at 2:00 AM. I ate breakfast at 9:30. Thankfully we did not need to be on the bus until 12:30. 

The bus ride from Sandton to the center of Johannesburg was pleasant. The clouds thinned out,  the sun shone and the wind continued to blow. After de boarding, we entered  the City Hall and walked into the "auditorium". It was breathtaking. The entire front wall was wood paneled with the middle third housing floor to ceiling organ pipes. There were four 4 person balconies on each of the side walls. There was a balcony in the back of the auditorium which seated around 200 people. The main floor had "movable" chairs, and probably seated 800 people. Hanging from the ceiling  down the middle of the room were 2 immense chandeliers, with an additional four smaller chandeliers placed directly  out from the four side balconies on each side of the room. City Hall was as elegant as Regina Mundi was holy. 

The stage presented a challenge for seating. The chorale had to condense from six to four rows. I was placed in the first row (a first) and I felt very vulnerable. I could not 'hide' behind someone: I needed to show that I knew the musical pieces. Seated beside were were two of the 29:11 gentlemen from Cape Town. There were ecstatic that there were performing Beethoven's Ninth for the third time.  Psychologically speaking, these two young men, as are the other members of 29:11, are "invulnerable, resilient" persons. They have endured so much in their short lifetime. They are extremey talented, intelligent, sensitive people. They sang with the chorale in July in Minneapolis and In August in Soweto and Johannesburg. They are so enduring to the entire chorale. Our short rehearsal was reinforcing and it heightened our excitement for the concert.

The program for the concert was slightly different than Friday night's program.  We commenced with the National Anthems of South Africa and the United States. It was very  powerful to see everyone stand and sing. Other than the national anthems, we were not in the first half of the program. Hence we were seated during intermission.

Upon being seated I was  struck by the lack of people of color. I immediately felt suspicious. (Remember, we are in Johannesburg, from which thousands of blacks and colored people were removed prior to and during the anti apartheid era and moved to Soweto. I was not certain that white supremacy still did not rule here.) The second half of the program was the entire Ninth Symphony by Beethoven. Since the choir  does not perform until the fourth and final  movement, I had a good 35 minutes to study the. audience. We gave an outstanding performance. People immediately and spontaneously rose to their feet and applauded for quite a while. However it was not  until we sang the first  encore piece of music: "Usilthela  Xcolo" (the the chant petitioning Mandela for his commitment to freedom) that I knew that these people stood for freedom! They sprung to their feet, and joined in singing and in doing the movements of this beautiful chant. My mistrust faded. I felt relieved. I felt hope. I was stirred by their rousing spirit. I knew that the "walk to freedom" was still alive. There are people who still want freedom and peace for all.

After the concert we had two parties. We first celebrated with the Gauteng Choristers. It was such a privilege to sing with these men and women. They are outstanding musicians: they have sung with Renee Fleming and others  who are extremely talented. They were instantaneously welcoming, sharing an ever present smile on their face and having a glisten in their eyes. They are fast learners; they had never sung in German and they "spoke" it well. They were inclusive, urging us to join them in their song about "hitch hiking and the car moving forward and backwards". I am not doing it justice, as I left the name of it in my music folder, now packed away. They begin the chant on stage, move off the stage, through the hallways, continuing to chant it, and once in the lobby they stop singing.  I felt as did others in the chorale to be part of them for a few moments. 

Our second celebration was with the MN Orchestra. It included a program of South African music by the group which sang for Mandela's inauguration, his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize and at his funeral and numerous commemorative services and a dinner. The group's dancing  and singing  were  intriguing, beautiful and very educational. The dinner included a program recognizing EVERYONE who contributed to the "Mandela Project": the MN Orchestra's Administrative staff, the orchestra's musicians and the technicians, the MN Chorale, 29:11 from Cape Town, the media, the Board members and the Corporations who underwrote the project, Classical Movements (the travel company which coordinated this immense undertaking) and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the chair of the Board. As my wife says: " Jim, you were in your element". I was talking  with Orchestra musicians and the Board members with whom I was seated, Kevin Smith, the retiring CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, schmoozing  with Dessa and 29:11, and dancing with a former Miss America from Minnesota and with my very special, talented, sensitive MN Chorale members. It was quite a gala event. 

I left the Convention center in an adrenaline state, excited, physically tired (and full of perspiration from the wild dancing) not ready for bed AND extremely grateful that I was on the roster.  I was proud to be an ambassador for Minnesota! 

It took a few more hours before I could
go to sleep.

Final Thoughts


As we fly from Johannesburg to Atlanta, I am aware that this final entry maybe the hardest to write. First we have been profoundly touched by the  effects of the abuse, oppression, de humanization to which the blacks and people of color were subjected. We also have had  the privilegto sing with the wonderful people of South Africa. We come away changed people. 

We had an exceptional experience singing with the Gauteng Choristers and 29:11. From our first rehearsal at the National School of the Arts to the march out of the  City Hall auditorium (singing "Koloyi Ayeme) of Johannesburg after our final concert, we felt a solidarity. We were bonded by our love of music and our belief that music touches almost everyone. Music has an healing effect. The choristers were very welcoming, extending themselves as we rehearsed the South African songs, which are now synonymous with the anti apartheid movement and the walk to freedom. They in turn asked us about the pronunciation of the  German words of the 4th movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It may sound profunctory but it was more than learning the pronunciation of  words. They were so excited and nervous to be singing this classical piece. The exchanges, the smiles, the trust instilled  a deep respect amongst the musicians. 

When we were  not rehearsing, we were learning about apartheid in South Africa. The Voortrekken is a monumental  glorification of the whites who conquered and killed the black people. As I stated in a previous entry, when the whites met death, it was called " murder". When the blacks and colored people met death, it was a "battle"? I was viscerally disturbed. The day before at the Nelson Mandela Museum we learned about the centuries of struggle which the blacks and colored people experienced. There was more violence than I can and want to describe. The most disturbing event to me was the physical removal of the blacks and colored people from their homes in Johannesburg, resettling them in Soweto. I can imagine the pulling of people away from families, people being killed and families being separated. Needless to say it reminds me of our government's treatment of "illegal immigrants". Thousands of people live in squatter cities in Soweto in abject poverty. The children are adorable and at their young age are still smiling, welcoming and trusting. I fear and know that they will affected. Most of them will not break out of their "slavery".

The concerts were magical. One of the people who envisioned this trip was Osmo Vanska, the conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. It is a privilege working under his baton. He "knows" what sound he desires and patiently guides us to that end. I previously mentioned that we might practice two bars until we sing it accurately. We sang  it correctly in the concert. He demonstrates his satisfaction with his smile. We are uplifted and are more motivated. We are more attentive. We are motivated to sing even better. 

The other person who is responsible for our preparedness and accuracy is our director, Kathy Salzman Romey. She is an exceptionally gifted musician. Even after 7 years under her direction, I am mesmerized by her talent, her command of music and her skill at teaching. It is difficult to explain her "ear" for accuracy. She hears every note and will tell us if our B-flat is "flat" enough or our F-sharps are sharp enough. Just by her presence on the podium,,she "command" our attention.  I marvel at her gift. By far, Kathy is the most talented musician that I have ever sung under. She  keeps notes on everyone of us from our first audition and subsequent re auditions: our range, our voice flexibility, our sense of rhythm, our ability to sight read music, our tonal quality. She knows where we have improved and where we need to improve. All of this enables her to select people for a project to achieve the blend desired considering thev difficulty of the music. She prepares us exceptionally well for singing in general and for preforming under the orchestral conductor. It is an honor to sing under her direction. 

Sunday and Monday were days for our personal enjoyment and for re-creation. We needed the leisure time. We departed from the Radisson Blu Hotel, were driven to "Rhino and Lion Park"  for our morning Safari drive: we saw : giraffes, zebras, impalas, a rhinoceros, wild dogs, white and brown lions, cougars and other animals of the wild.  We were then driven the Cradle Moon Safari Lodge  where we could participate in numerous activities or do nothing. Another chorale member and I chose to walk the 5K route, which was closer to a 10K. At one point on the trail, we saw the head of an Hippo come to the surface  of the water. Within about 20 minutes, we became anxious the longer we walked. The trail seemed longer than is posted. The Cradle Moon lodge  was not in sight. The sun was setting and we knew that we needed to make it back to the lodge before dark. Of course, my cell phone was losing power! We were successful with the assistance of a man on a bicycle. When we encountered a "dazzle of zebras" on the path, thankfully we knew we were close to the lodge. We "needed" a cocktail before our last group dinner.  We continued to be leisurely Monday until we checked in at the Tambor Airport. I was ready to go home. 

The MN Orchestra's Mandela Project was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am grateful to Kevin Smith and the MN Orchestra administration,  for being on the roster for the project, for Kathy's confidence in my singing, for the opportunity to learn about Nelson Mandela's walk to freedom, for the introduction to the Fliptown Youth Program and the children served by the program, for the collaboration and comaraderia with the Gueteng Choristers and 29:11, for the friendships with the other chorale singers, and for the selflessness and generosity of my wife, Denise.

I hope that you have been able to be in South Africa vicariously.

I am grateful to God that I have the skills,  schedule and means to be part of the project.
May we find ways to end discrimination and to find freedom for everyone.

Buona fortuna! 


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