Chineke! give characteristically life-affirming performances of music concerned with death

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Goodyear, Berlioz, Garcia: Isabelle Peters (soprano), Idunnu Munch (mezzo-soprano), Zwakele Tshabalala (tenor), Rodney Earl Clarke (baritone), Chineke! Chorus and Orchestra / Malcolm J. Merriweather (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 3.5.2024. (CK)

Malcolm J. Merriweather conducts Idunnu Munch (mezzo-soprano) and Chineke! Orchestra © Chuko Cribb

Stewart Goodyear – Life, Life, Life (world premiere)
Berlioz – La Mort de Cleopatre
Jose Mauricio Nunes Garcia – Requiem

Every Chineke! Concert is party time, even when the theme running through the whole programme is death. I cannot imagine a more life-affirming concert than this – unless it be another Chineke! concert, perhaps, or the early, heady days of Gustavo Dudamel’s el sistema Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. In Chineke! concerts, the audience plays a full and vocal part.

Anyone who heard Stewart Goodyear’s scintillating Callaloo at a Chineke! concert last June will have been looking forward to this premiere of his Life! Life! Life! (and to the chance to hear Callaloo again in this year’s Chineke! Prom in the Royal Albert Hall on 8 September). The new work is dedicated to his mother, who died last year: Goodyear writes ‘She was, and still is, the most beautiful soul that I will ever know, and this work is a celebration of her spirit.’

The celebration takes the form of a suite in four movements. The first, Waking, is fresh and optimistic: airy strings, tapping percussion, bright brass. A quieter section has a long-limbed flute melody over pizzicato strings; woozy slides on the double basses and the rest of the strings depict breathing. A horn solo catches the ear. The second movement, Hymn, is for strings only, and it is wonderful: think Mahler for quiet intensity, Nielsen for humanity, though Goodyer’s music copies neither. I would love to hear it again.

The scherzo-like third movement, scored for winds and brass, is irresistible. There is a sultry trumpet tune that might have come from the soundtrack of a spaghetti western, and work for the two trumpets and side drum every bit as dazzling as the Ballerina’s Dance from Petrushka or the central section of the third movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. And that’s saying something. A lovely riff for percussion too. The players clearly revelled in this music and in the final movement’s Calypso-inspired dance: snappy rhythms, muted trumpets, a funky passage for bassoon. A recording, please.

Berlioz’s La Mort de Cleopatre was written by the young composer at a time when his principal aim was to relieve his poverty by winning the Prix de Rome (submitting entries in the appropriately conventional style that he despised). This work, though, is prime Berlioz, as this arresting performance made abundantly clear, from the opening – tense strings sinking to the depths on cellos and basses – to the fluttering and slowing of Cleopatra’s heartbeats as the poison takes hold. There are so many passages that could only have been written by Berlioz – the processional grandeur of solemn trombones over pizzicato lower strings, the sudden agitation and spine-chilling horror of the prospect of death.

None of this would have really counted, though, without the vividness and immediacy of mezzo-soprano Idunnu Munch’s assumption of the role of the Egyptian Queen. Tall and striking, a commanding figure, she compelled our attention from first to last: she was in magnificent voice, singing with a rich and dramatic directness that gave us nowhere to hide from the mental state of the woman she was embodying. It was a remarkable performance. My wife’s reaction was ‘Extraordinary. She took me on a journey.’

After the interval, Jose Mauricio Nunes Garcia’s Requiem. Eleven years younger than Mozart, he never left his homeland Brazil: but through the patronage of the Catholic Church, and the wholesale removal of the Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro as Napoleon rampaged through Europe, he was able to absorb European influences. His story, as recounted by Charlotte Barbour-Condini in the programme, is an absorbing one, though too involved to be summarised here. Garcia was commissioned to write the Requiem in 1816 on the death of the Portuguese Queen Maria in Lisbon; he had never met her and was probably moved more immediately by the death of his mother in the same month.

The music would not exist if it were not for Mozart. Indeed, at the first choral entry you could be forgiven for thinking it was the Mozart Requiem you were listening to. Garcia’s version shares Mozart’s key of D minor, and in the course of its half-hour or so the music of the greater work is frequently evoked.

Malcolm J. Merriweather (conductor), soloists, Chineke! Chorus and Orchestra © Chuko Cribb

Chi-chi Nwanoku (Chineke!’s Founder and Artistic Director) told us that this performance was the debut of the Chineke! Chorus: most of them are not readers of music and learned this totally unfamiliar piece by ear in six rehearsals over seven weeks. They acquitted themselves very well, with taut, dramatic singing, and with great attack in the Kyrie and elsewhere where needed. Solo soprano Isabelle Peters’s voice was sweet and clear, but rather small alongside that of Munch; tenor Zwakele Tshabalala was similarly outgunned by Rodney Earl Clarke (replacing the indisposed Roderick Williams).

Garcia does not follow Mozart slavishly: he distributes solos in the long Dies Irae sequence as he pleases, providing a surprisingly urgent setting for Inter oves; and he makes quite a moment of de profundo lacu, sung cavernously, and twice, by the unaccompanied baritone. The baritone gets quam olim Abrahae too, in place of Mozart’s busy fugue. A brief Sanctus, and an even briefer Benedictus and Osanna; a troubled Agnus Dei, finished by the orchestra alone – rather anticlimactically, the chorus were silent in the final bars.

At the end, though, joy was unconfined: there was a standing ovation for this fine, fresh performance of an unknown work. There will be those who sniff at the piece – not distinctive enough, too obviously Mozartian – but hats off to Chineke! for unearthing it and bringing it to performance. And to Chineke! Chorus, for an auspicious and hard-earned debut: I will look forward to hearing them again.

Chris Kettle

4 thoughts on “Chineke! give characteristically life-affirming performances of music concerned with death”

  1. I thought it was an experience worth reliving and I urge others to go witness this themselves. I thank Angela Michaels, who was part of the choir, for inviting me along. I will follow their fortunes going forward.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the live performances from both the Chineke! Orchestra and Chorus.
    I found myself breathing slowly and deeply through some of the pieces, which made for a wonderful experience of receiving the beautiful renditions. Chineke! are truly a high skilled group that show case their talents with ease and simplicity 💚.

  3. I found the Chineke! experience on 3rd May at Queen Elizabeth Hall, emotional, moving and uplifting, by turns. I felt that the combination of the orchestra and the chorus, complimented each other. My only wish was that, I understood more about, the meaning of the language used, which made me realise, I have much to learn! I found the performance overwhelming and life affirming.

  4. Every performance I like them more! Last time they blew me away with their Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, this time with Berlioz’s Mort de Cléopatra. Also delighted to hear the UK premiere of Stewart Goodyear’s new work (with hints of Bernstein’s West Side Story plus a little Mahler and Berlioz), and the Requiem from Nunes García with more than a hint of Mozart. Here’s to their next performance!


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