Students from the South African National Youth Orchestra reflect on their August 2018 Immersion Experience with the Minnesota Orchestra and what is next in their musical lives.
By Isha Ranchod
“When you go to these courses, you come back home with this fire, and you want to spread it – let everyone else catch onto it because it’s such a great feeling to have!”
Young French horn player Hayley Uithaler’s face lights up as she tries to describe her sentiments. Uithaler is a member of the South African National Youth Orchestra (SANYO), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the training and development of South Africa’s young musicians.
SANYO students felt a rush of adrenalin for two days straight when the Minnesota Orchestra joined the ensemble for what was called an Immersion Experience in August 2018, as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s five-city tour of South Africa.
For the SANYO members, the impact of the Minnesota Orchestra's visit continues well after the Orchestra has left. Over two months later, the Orchestra is remembered and discussed with vivid excitement by all those who took part in this experience. The Minnesota Orchestra has since begun its new season. How has life moved on for the young orchestra members from South Africa?
Five of these young musicians shared their thoughts.
Small Things Matter Most
Kutloano Bookholane (viola, 15) and Refilwe ‘Fifi’ Moeketsane (bass, 16) were taking part in SANYO’s annual orchestra course for the first time. They started as participants of the Mangaung String Program in Free State, South Africa, which targets historically disadvantaged children by setting up string lessons in some of the province’s primary schools. Both Kutloano and Fifi began as violin pupils, but chose to change to their respective lower-registered instruments after about a year of playing the violin.
The top players in this string program, such as Kutloano and Fifi, get promoted to join the Bochabela String Orchestra, made up of strings, congas and shakers, all used together to play catchy African beats, traditional tunes and much more.
When I asked Kutloano what he thought of the Minnesota Orchestra’s performances he saw as part of the Immersion Experience, he says incredulously, “Didn’t you hear them play? Didn’t you hear a world class orchestra?” He added then that it also made him aware that the small things in the music are the things that truly matter the most.
What really made this an immersive experience is that it was so much more than just being given tickets to two performances. SANYO students participated in a side-by-side rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Osmo Vänskä himself, in which each young player sat next to his or her professional counterpart, making it very personal to each individual. This side-by-side rehearsal was supplemented by masterclasses for the various sections or instrument groups.
"I was so scared I couldn't talk."
I asked how Fifi felt when she woke up on the morning of the side-by-side rehearsal, when they would meet a major American orchestra for the first time. She had told herself to be calm and relax, playing it down in her mind during the build-up. But when she got there, she says she sort of broke down.
“I don’t know what happened. I was so scared that I couldn’t talk to anyone, and my voice was just non-existent. It was so overwhelming, but in a very exciting way.”
She soon recovered, thanks to Minnesota Orchestra bass player David Williamson, with whom Fifi was paired. Over and above giving her tips and intonation exercises, he encouraged her not to be afraid while playing. “I learnt to be confident, because he kept on telling me that I’m good, even though I wasn’t so sure about it at the time.”
For most of the SANYO members, this was the first time they witnessed, let alone interacted with, a professional orchestra of this caliber. One exception to this, however, is Gilah Kellner (violin, 15), who, just 14 years old at the time, was SANYO’s concertmaster for this orchestra course. Gilah was selected as one of three SANYO members to visit the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in May this year. With this experience behind her and to compare to, she described the Minnesota Orchestra enthusiastically.
“They are a very good orchestra, and they move together. They really exaggerate dynamics, making the tiniest sound, and then beautiful large sounds, playing energetically and in such an expressive manner.” Of Osmo Vänskä she says, “He’s very passionate and I think that is brilliant. He also conducts in a way that shows he knows what everyone is doing—he is extremely knowledgeable.”
Gilah, who is based in Johannesburg, is home-schooled, but hopes to do her post-secondary studies in music performance in America or Germany. She also performed as a soloist in the National Youth Concerto Festival just a month ago. Kutloano, on the other hand, wants to first study something along the lines of mechanical engineering in South Africa, before pursuing a music career overseas in Europe. And Fifi, who was of two minds about it before the Immersion Experience, is now considering a career in music, having spoken to Minnesota Orchestra musicians and seen how much they enjoy what they do.
This year, the ages of the SANYO members ranged from 12 to 26 years. Two zealous music students from Nelson Mandela University in the coastal city Port Elizabeth, Hayley Uithaler (horn, 22) and Chadley Johnson (trombone, 21), were part of the brass section, and have been since 2016.
Both Hayley and Chadley had been researching their Minnesota Orchestra counterparts and sections well before the Immersion Experience. Chadley joked that he didn’t even need to be introduced to his section or his mentor, Minnesota Orchestra Principal Trombone R. Douglas Wright, since he recognized them all immediately.
I asked Chadley what he felt the impact of the experience to have been. He explained that as a musician, you go through waves, and last year had been the most stagnant in his progress, not just in terms of technical ability on his instrument, but also in his motivation to practise and his outlook on the future. He explained that when SANYO brought in a few of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra members to their Summer course in December 2017, it sparked something in him. “With the waves that you go through, having the Minnesota Orchestra members here re-sparked it. So the great part of these courses is you get refueled, and until the next course, you’ve got what you need to carry on—it equips you to go forth alone.”
Play and Deliver
Hayley bonded very well with her counterpart, Minnesota Orchestra horn player Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, not only because she was generous, open and willing to share her knowledge and advice.
“Ellen expressed to me that there will be days when it will feel as if it’s not a good day for you, but even on those days, you still need to put your mind in the right place to be able to play and deliver. Now I’ve seen an entire orchestra that does that. So now you kind of crave that kind of environment from everyone around you, but it was just nice to know that they are human and relatable. Some of them still have performance anxiety! They gave me tips on how to deal with it.”
Hayley plans to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education after she graduates, and although she wants to teach, she is emphatic that she won’t stop playing in ensembles and orchestras when she does.
Chadley was the concerto soloist in the Nelson Mandela University Orchestra’s concert in September, and he wants to take a Master’s degree in performance—ideally in another country—once he graduates. He says he will start preparing and researching universities, auditions and scholarships soon.
There were three recurring themes with all five of these young SANYO members. Firstly, they all loved being able to have dinner with the Minnesota Orchestra members, being able to talk freely, get to know each other, and ask questions that didn’t necessarily relate to Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, the music that was rehearsed in the side-by-side experience. Nevertheless, they did all take away new perspectives and techniques for their respective instruments. Finally, they all wished that they had even more time with the Minnesota musicians, be that in the form of masterclasses, lessons, or just another meal together.
After my interview with Hayley and Chadley, I gave them the opportunity to add their own questions. They asked in unison:
“When is the next Immersion Experience?”
Isha Ranchod is a freelance writer based in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. A SANYO alumna, she worked as an assistant project manager for SANYO during the Immersion Experience. Ranchod completed a degree in Music with Psychology as her second major with Cum Laude. She holds being a feminist and a member of the Indian diaspora as two major facets of her personality, and she is a passionate dog lover.
Photos by Travis Anderson and Sean Burke