As part of the Southbank Centre’s Africa Utopia festival, the launch of Chineke!, Europe’s first Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) orchestra was a keenly anticipated event. Founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku, Chineke! was born from her desire to promote and celebrate diversity in classical music, both in terms of performers and audiences.
The first piece, Ballade by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), an English composer of Creole descent, was a fitting choice to open with. Chineke! Orchestra delivered an even-handed rendition of this jubilant piece, giving each section of the ensemble the opportunity to demonstrate its relative strengths, with the effective woodwind section leading the themes.
Philip Herbert’s Elegy, performed on what would have been Stephen Lawrence’s 41st-birthday, is a finely nuanced composition which Chineke! approached rather cautiously. The violins could have expressed the piano dynamics with a little less timidity and, throughout, the piece felt constrained by the tendency for the orchestra to play it safe.
The same caution applied to the slower sections of Brahms’s Haydn Variations – the St Anthony Chorale not composed by Haydn as it turns out – yet with bold flashes expressed in the scherzo-like and dance segments. The energy of the performance intensified as Chineke! shifted into a more confident stride. As the Variations progressed, the musicians flexed their muscles, displaying discipline and dexterity, and tightly conducted by Wayne Marshall. This assured tone continued throughout Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, which concluded with particular gusto and flamboyance.
This was overall an impressive debut, which may have begun tentatively but grew in confidence. It will be fascinating to see how Chineke! develops artistically from such a promising starting point.