By Inge Kjemtrup
Two years ago, double-bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku—a founder-member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, teacher, and chamber musician—realized a dream. In 2015, this distinguished British performer, the daughter of Nigerian and Irish parents, launched an orchestra “to provide career opportunities for young black and minority ethnic (BME) classical musicians from the UK and continental Europe.”
That orchestra, called Chineke!, made its BBC Proms debut on Wednesday, August 30, conducted by Kevin John Edusei. Fittingly, the night began with Nwanoku, the orchestra’s founder and artistic director, proudly leading her young colleagues onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall.
As well as furthering careers in classical music (there’s also a junior orchestra for BME players age 11–18), Chineke! aims to perform music by black composers. In a program made up of small musical gems, harking back to the concert programs of a century ago, there were three pieces by black composers.
Commissioned by the BBC, The Spark Catchers, by young British composer Hannah Kendall, is an orchestral work based on a poem about an 1888 strike by match girls in London’s East End. There’s much to like about this Stravinsky-inflected piece, but it requires a precision that was lacking in this performance.
Chineke! fared better in Lyric for Strings, a tender work written in 1946 by the 95-year-old American composer George Walker. Both Kendall and Walker are new names to me, and I will be exploring the rest of their catalogs.
More familiar to me is Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the dashing Classical-era composer, violinist, conductor, politician, and fencer whose life should be made into a film (and was, in 2003, as Le Mozart Noir). His song “Au penchant qui noise entraîne” was gracefully interpreted by soprano Jeanine De Bique, who also sang two Handel arias, well supported by the orchestra’s core players.
The second soloist of the night was the 18-year-old cellist and recent winner of BBC Young Musician of the Year, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He took on two lightweight charmers, Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody of 1894 and Dvorak’s Rondo in G minor, Op.94, with tremendous panache. It will be exciting to see Kanneh-Mason’s youthful exuberance and abundant musicality develop as he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. One to watch.
The most substantial piece of the night was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. It’s a warhorse to end all warhorses, but fun nonetheless, not least for concertmaster Kelly Hall-Tompkins, an American violinist who brought an appealing flair to her many solos. The audience response to Capriccio espagnol was wildly enthusiastic.
Chineke! brings new perspectives and new audiences to the sometimes-sclerotic UK classical-music scene, and long may it continue to do so.