Chineke! Earns its Stripes with a Fabulous Late-Night Prom

01/09/2017

Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 62: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello); Jeanine De Bique (soprano); Chineke! / Kevin John Edusei (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 30.8.2017. (CC)

Hannah Kendall – The Spark Catchers (BBC Commission: 2017, World Premiere
Dvořák – Rondo in G minor, Op. 94
Popper (orch Schlegel) – Hungarian Rhapsody, Op. 68
George Walker – Lyric for Strings (first Proms performance)
Handel – Giulio Cesare, ‘Da tempeste’; Messiah, ‘Rejoice Greatly’
Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (orch. Rodriguez) – Au penchant qui nous entraîne
Rimsky-Korsakov – Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34

The arrival of an orchestra promoting career opportunities for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe is a cause for major celebration. (There is also a Chineke! Junior Orchestra of musicians aged between 11 and 18, mentored and inspired by players from the senior ensemble.) The placement of their concert in a late-night slot hardly seemed to deter either the number or the enthusiasm of the audience – an enthusiasm richly deserved. The orchestra’s founder is the well-loved double-bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku, OBE, who was leading the double-basses on this occasion. A rather nice touch is that the leader and the conductor enter with the orchestra rather than receiving separate applause – this is very much a unified team.

The name ‘Chineke’ itself comes from the Igbo people of South East Nigeria: Chi means ‘God’, your personal Guardian; ‘Neke’ means the Creation of all good things. Together, they form an exclamation of the spirit of creation of all things good.

The impetus to cover this Prom actually stemmed from hearing Chineke!’s disc of Sibelius Finlandia and Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony on Signum Records (SIGCD515). There is such a feeling of energy and enthusiasm on the disc that any minor failings seem irrelevant, sentiments that extended to this performance.

Born in 1984, Hannah Kendall has had several significant performances by the BBC Singers (her 2010 piece Fundamental with the BBC Singers and Onyx Brass was broadcast on Radio Three). Significant teachers include Joe Duddell and Kenneth Hesketh. As Kendall puts it herself, “I’m always trying to create a sense of drama in my music”. And this is not her first piece aimed at racially diverse performers and audiences, either: the chamber opera The Knife of Dawn focuses on the Guyanese/Caribbean political activist and poet, Martin Carter and was written for a singer of Caribbean heritage – the piece brought in an audience at The Roundhouse that was 45% black, Asian and minority ethnic origin.

Kendall’s piece The Spark Catchers (2017), receiving its world premiere, reflects the importance of Lemn Sissay’s poem of that name, a poem commissioned for the London 2012 Olympics. (It is permanently etched into one of the electrical transformer points at Olympic Park.) The poem commemorates the women in 1880s London who went on strike – pardon the pun – against poor pay in the match factories. Kendall-s work packs a lot of incident into its short ten-minute duration. Expertly scored to give off a bright, infectious sense of sparkling life, Kendall exhibits a simple yet effective use of layering technique. The section ‘Beneath the Stars’ was really quite lovely. In performance terms, it was the discipline of the strings that stood out on first flush. Kendall’s music is unashamedly gestural, nowhere more so than in the final upward rush. There’s a melodic impetus there, too, in the long lines that are so often set against other lines that simply can’t keep still. Kendall’s scoring is impeccable, nothing masked unnecessarily. It is clear she knows just how to get the sound she requires.

I heard BBC Musician of the Year 2016, Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Shostakovich First Cello Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra at the Barbican in April this year; a subtle reading that also held great power. Here, it was Dvořák’s Rondo in G minor from 1891 that provided the first opportunity for him to shine and indeed launched his Proms career (not counting a previous appearance in Proms in the Park); in fact, it was the combination of Kanneh-Mason and Chineke! that shone brightest, the characterful shading of the theme from solo cello matched in delight by a pair of Czech-pastoral oboes. The point is, the performance sounded perfectly idiomatic; it was followed by virtuosity to balance Dvořák’s lyricism in David Popper’s 1894 Hungarian Rhapsody, originally for cello and piano an d heard here in an orchestration by Max Schlegel. True, a couple of those cripplingly high har monics sounded a touch strained, but there is no denying Kanneh-Mason’s compelling way with the ‘Hungarian’ themes, in which he located a prevailing strain of melancholy. There are real virtuoso demands here, all well delivered, from the solo cello cadenza that occurs right at the beginning (after an orchestral flourish) and later with orchestra. The piece is fluff, let’s be honest, but it’s fun fluff.

I first came across the infectious music of George Theophilus Walker (born 1922) on a disc of his orchestral works, including the First and Third Sinfonias, by the Sinfonia Varsovia under Ian Hobson (Albany TROY 1961 – a most recommendable disc, incidentally). A beacon for US black composers, Walker’s popular Lyric for Strings of 1946 here received its first Proms performance. This was a performance of hushed reverence, full of well-controlled lines and careful blossoming out of phrases – all credit to conductor Kevin John Edusei for shaping the music so convincingly.

It was wonderful to hear some Handel in the programme. The Trinidad and Tobago soprano Jeanine De Bique, previously a member of the Vienna State Opera, has a marvellously flexible voice, as her way with ornaments in ‘Da tempeste’ from Giulio Cesare proved (not ‘Giulo’ Cesare as the Proms booklet had it, yet another typo of rather too many this year in the Proms programmes). The orchestra was completely there with her throughout, harpsichord adding to the brew. Next, an offering from Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (c1775-1799). Known as the ‘black Mozart’, readers may be interested that a disc of his violin concertos has been multiply reviewed on Musicweb-International (see reviews by myself, Patrick Waller and Jonathan Woolf). The salon aria Au penchant qui nous entraîne has been orchestrated by Mauricio J. Rodriguez (born 1976). The piece has its rather nice twists and turns as the heroine of the text grapples, in typical period fashion, with conflicting feelings around love. The French text was well presented by De Bique – who in the hall seemed too quiet at the outset heard from the stalls but in the BBC relay seems well placed. Chineke! provided a richly Romantic view of this quasi-Mozart piece before De Bique unleashed a flurry of semiquavers on the audience in the well-loved ‘Rejoice greatly’ from Handel’s Messiah. The fast speed of the opening section allowed stark contrast to the more interior slant of the section beginning ‘He is the righteous Saviour’ – a simply superb vocal trill from De Bique was this Messiah excerpt’s crowning moment.

To finish, the brightly-lit extravaganza that is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. Here, credit must go to Chineke!’s leader, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, for her many solos; Miriam Adams’ dancing clarinet in the opening ‘Alborada’ was another cause for delight. The horn quartet at the opening of the second movement ‘Variazioni’ was exquisitely balanced. The final ‘Fandango asturiano’, whose opening pick up from the ‘Scena e canto gitano’ was perhaps not entirely spot-on, led us to a conclusion marked by intelligence in that it, laudably, avoided the merely raucous.

A fabulous Late-Night Prom, well attended and, deservedly, enthusiastically received. Perhaps Chineke! has earned its stripes and we don’t have to stay up so late next time? A full evening Prom would give the orchestra an opportunity to really shine; and, on present showing, we would be guaranteed stimulating programming.

Colin Clarke

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