Kevin John Edusei and his Chineke! forces at the Proms send Beethoven’s call to us all

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [26], Prom 61 – Walker, Beethoven: Nicole Cabell (soprano), Raehann Bryce-Davis (mezzo-soprano), Zwakele Tshabalala (tenor), Ryan Speedo Green (bass-baritone), Chineke! Voices, Chineke! Orchestra / Kevin John Edusei (conductor). Recorded (directed by Seren Irvine) at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.9.2022, and broadcast on BBC Four. (JPr)

Kevin John Edusei conducts the Chineke! Orchestra © Mark Allan

George WalkerLilacs

Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor, ‘Choral’

In 1996, George Walker (1922-2018) became the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Lilacs is a short setting for a soprano and orchestra of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ which in itself is his elegy for President Abraham Lincoln who was assassinated in 1865. Several years after the event Whitman wrote: ‘I remember where I was stopping at the time, the season being advanced, there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of great tragedy of that day by the sight and odour of these blossoms. It never fails.’

In the words of Clive Myrie – who introduced the broadcast – Lilacs was receiving its ‘long overdue Proms debut’ and it could not have had better ambassadors than soprano Nicole Cabell, conductor Kevin John Edusei, and the ethnically-diverse Chineke! Orchestra with so many Black musicians. I know I could replay this again and again but will stick to my initial impressions and – oddly or perhaps not? – I wrote down how the opening reminded me of the expressionist soundworld of Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Undoubtedly there is much music which has a haunting beauty and surely reflects the implied grief of Whitman’s words, had we been able to hear more of them or read them on the screen. Once again, I cannot understand why the BBC did not have them as subtitles so they could be better followed and understood. Lilacs is not singer-friendly and there are several high-lying passages which Cabell found challenging, though her intense performance was clearly at one with the emotions Walker wanted us to experience from his orchestral writing.

Myrie had introduced the whole concert by saying: ‘This will be Chineke!’s fifth performance at the BBC Proms and this time it’s joined by the newly formed chorus, Chineke! Voices, a brand-new string to the foundations ever-growing and blooming bow. So quite a party down onstage tonight with the performers numbering in the hundreds.’ Of course, he was referring more to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony than Walker’s Lilacs. We have heard this symphony even more frequently in recent years for various reasons, notably in its use as the Anthem of Europe and hearing it played as part of various national celebrations. Of course, this is quite appropriate since it is Beethoven’s passionate, evocative ‘heart on his sleeve’ testament of his democratic idealism and longing for peace throughout the world.

I haven’t heard it that many times and I have wondered in the past what works best; whether lingering on the romanticism in the music or performed here as if everyone concerned had a plane to catch. I remember a quote I once read from an unnamed critic about this Ninth Symphony conducted in September 1992 by Klaus Tennstedt that described how ‘The listener sits on a knife-edge throughout, as if on a stagecoach drawn by galloping horses on a precipitous mountainside road’. That critic’s impression was the same as mine now seeing and hearing Kevin John Edusei and his Chineke! forces during their performance at the BBC Proms. In fact, I could go on and describe the ‘ride’ which they took us all on as nothing less than ‘exhilarating’.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the BBC Proms 2022 © Mark Allan

It was all over in barely 61 minutes which is on the faster side for the symphony I believe. After a suitably suspenseful opening to a sprightly Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso a storm seemed to be brewing which finally arrived in the woodwind, brass and timpani-led coda. The rollicking second movement (Molto vivace) began with an almost Mendelsohnian idiom and alternated between stomping angst and manic glee with the trio providing some repose from a certain musical braggadocio. The close-up camerawork focussed particularly here on the conductor’s economical gestures and expressive hands. After this scherzo, there was an elegiac opening to the Adagio molto e cantabile third movement and underpinned by the strings, virtuosically led by Kelly Hall-Tompkins, as the main thematic material gets repeated it got faster and faster like a torrent of water picking up speed to wash away all that came before it. The first tutti of the Finale continued the controlled chaos yet soon gave way to more plaintive cellos although Edusei continued a headlong momentum as the heightened drama of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ approached.

Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green sang his opening solo, ‘O Freude’ with superb clarity and a sonorous authority. Zwakele Tshabalala brought clarion tone and some fine phrasing to the rather bumpy tenor line Beethoven allots him in the ‘Turkish music’. Soprano Nicole Cabell cut though a wall of orchestral sound assuredly and although mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis had less to sing than the others she made a noted contribution to the ensemble work because of a rich chest voice.

The final verse of Schiller’s poem begins ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!’ (I embrace you, millions! This kiss is for the whole world!) resonated in its declamation because of some very spirited singing by Chineke! Voices. With Edusei further cranking up of the tempo real ‘Joy’ seemed unconfined. All the soloists united in the florid version of the first verse and an urgent and ecstatic paean to the ‘Tochter aus Elysium’ (‘Daughter from Elysium’) as Edusei drove his consummate orchestra on towards the exultant final bars. There were ethereal sounds from the chorus before Beethoven’s march-like culmination as it absolutely proved – as Myrie concluded – ‘A call to us all to become brothers’.

Jim Pritchard

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