Beethoven’s message triumphed in the QEH, as did Chineke!’s BAME message

26/02/2020

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Coleridge-Taylor, Bruch, Beethoven: Tai Murray (violin), Chineke! Orchestra / Fawzi Haimor (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, 23.2.2020. (AK)

Tai Murray (violin) and Chineke! at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – Othello Suite, Op.79

Bruch – Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26

Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.26

The concert given by the Chineke! Orchestra was unusual, contradictory and deeply moving.

Founded by successful double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku four years ago, the orchestra fields mostly – though not exclusively – Black, Asian and mixed-race players (that is BAME musicians). Although the sight of the large number of BAME musicians on the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall stage was indeed deeply moving, to me it is a very sad sign of our times that it takes special efforts (including putting together such an orchestra) to allow due appreciation to classical musicians of colour.

On the other hand, is there really a need to group musicians according to the colour of their skin? Most unusually, possibly as a first in the world of orchestras, Chineke! produced detailed biographies of all players in the programme notes. According to these biographical entries, each player is very successful regardless at which stage of their career they are. So, thankfully and hopefully, the creation of this orchestra does not stem from discrimination against BAME classical musicians.

The audience at this concert was also unusual. For once BAME people were possibly in majority in the auditorium but non-BAME people also turned up in large numbers. Many seemed to have attended to pay tribute to orchestra founder-director Chi-Chi Nwanoku OBE who is the daughter of an Irish mother and a Nigerian father and who rose to the top of her profession in the UK and beyond.

It is possible that many of the audience were not regular concertgoers: we had enthusiastic clapping between movements of all three compositions. (This is not unusual at Prom concerts either, some conductors happily encourage it. As did conductor Iván Fischer at a recent concert with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.) On conclusion of the pieces, especially at the end of the concert, enthusiasm was expressed not only by clapping but also cheering and whistling.

It looks like Chineke! did expect inexperienced audience participants: the programme notes listed detailed explanations for the terms Adagio, Allegro energetico, Allegro moderato, Cantata, Concerto, Suite and Vorspiel. Perhaps other orchestras/concert promoters should follow with such details: why not educate, entertain and share the magic of music in one package?

Chineke! opened their concert with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite. The composer, born in Holborn as the son of an English mother and Creole father, fits the orchestra’s ethos perfectly. The five-movement suite derives from the incidental music composed by Coleridge-Taylor for a production of Othello. The opening movement (‘Dance’) is perfect for getting attention in the theatre and for setting the mood for a celebratory concert like Chineke!’s appearance in the Queen Elizabeth Hall to mark their fourth birthday. The tempo (in the piano reduction of the score) is marked Allegro; the overriding dynamics are forte and fortissimo with several sf accents increasing the excitement. Conductor Fawzi Haimor and the orchestra gave full enthusiasm to what felt like a prolonged fanfare but suitably relaxed the mood in the waltz-like middle section. The second movement (‘Children’s Intermezzo’) benefitted from the excellent team work between the orchestra’s two clarinet players (Mariam Adam and Mebrakh Aughton-Johnson) while the third movement (‘Funeral March’) as well as much of the music during the rest of the evening showed what a superb timpani/percussion player Pedro Segundo is. It is a shame that audience members were arriving and shuttling to their seats during the opening trumpet solo of the fourth movement (‘The Willow Song’) but Gabriel Dias blew his trumpet eloquently, seemingly without being distracted. The concluding movement (‘Military March’) re-confirmed the aural strength of Chineke!: although smaller in number than a regular symphony orchestra, they filled the hall with powerful sound. It greatly pleased the audience and it must have pleased descendants of Coleridge-Taylor who were in attendance.

Bruch’s First Violin Concert, dedicated to Joseph Joachim, needs a performer who is as musical as is technically accomplished. Chicago-born but possibly New York educated American violinist Tai Murray has all the qualities needed and, clearly, she is fully familiar with the orchestral parts of the composition. Elegant and self-effacing, Murray gave us the warmth as well as the brilliance of the solo violin part. Nevertheless, in spite of her considerable experience, she might have been nervous on this occasion. To my ears but – I hasten to add – not to those of others I spoke to, some of the unaccompanied solo violin passages (in the first movement) had some unintended accompanying noise which could be caused by a number of contributors including nerves. Notwithstanding this minor blemish, Murray’s phrases were beautifully shaped and her interaction with conductor and ensemble was exemplary. Her virtuosity, in particular in the final section of the concerto, was mind-blowing. Bearing in mind the BAME aspect of this concert, I could not help thinking that a century or two ago, such great talent as Murray would have been deprived of fulfilling her potential in her native Chicago.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was played at Chineke!’s first concert four years ago, thus a repeat performance at the fourth birthday was most appropriate (even without the worldwide Beethoven 250 celebrations). One could argue that – until the spirited last movement – this performance lacked the full fire which is assumed to be necessary but I loved the excellent tempi chosen by conductor Haimor. Furthermore, I was in tears during the utterly beautiful presentation of the second movement (Allegretto) theme, first by the splendid lower strings and then by the excellent first flute (Michael Liu) and first oboe ((Lorraine Hart). I was delighted that conductor Haimor went attacca into the last movement, for once not allowing clapping between movements. By the last movement all nerves seemed to have settled, Beethoven’s message triumphed in the hall. As did Chineke!’s BAME message.

Agnes Kory

For more about Chineke! click here.

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