Chineke! Orchestra Spans the Continents at Queen’s Hall Edinburgh

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble & William Barton. Image Ryan Buchanan
Chineke! Chamber Ensemble. Image Ryan Buchanan

Chineke! Orchestra & William Barton

From: 12 Aug 2022

The Queen’s Hall
85-89 Clerk St
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Chineke! Orchestra is the brainchild of world-renowned solo double-bass virtuoso Chi-Chi Nwanoku. Founded in 2015, its mission is to seek out black and ethnically diverse classical talent. And what a remarkable cluster of artists have been sourced thus far.

This morning’s concert is staged by a skilled ensemble drawn from the Chineke! ranks and features a string section augmented by woodwind, brass and piano. Apt for an ethnically diverse group, the programme kicks off with a little-performed work by African-American composer William Grant Still.

Folk Suite No 1 features three traditional tunes reworked into complex and lyrical arrangements which test the group’s flexibility and attention to detail. Flautist Meera Maharaj takes the lead while the string section ably scampers up and down the fingerboards, delivering a dazzling display of intertwining, rhythmic melodies. The second movement is particularly evocative and beats with a warm, gentle heart.

Woodwind and brass join the string section for American flautist and composer Valerie Coleman’s Red Clay and Mississippi Delta – an angular and brittle contemporary work with echoes of blues and roots music. Its fractured structure is held together by flighty violins and scurrying bass notes which veer and crash before morphing into lush strings. It’s an imaginative composition not short of a little humour (the score even calls for finger clicks, which the audience duly deliver en masse).

Rising of Mother Country by Australian William Barton kicks-off with some growling deep notes from ‘cello and double-bass creating an air of mystical tribal rites, which is compounded when the composer begins chanting from the back of the hall. As the musicians slowly build the glowering mood, he wanders toward the stage howling an eerie mantra using only the natural acoustics of the room to deepen and flavour his vocal. It’s a hypnotic, spine-tingling performance which grips the audience. Onstage, he takes charge of two didgeridoos and embellishes the growing frenzy of the composition with pulsing, snarling rhythms mixed with occasional wild animal sounds. The ensemble appears visibly energised by Barton’s deep tones and dramatic chants as they bring the piece to a storming climax, rousing the crowd to a standing ovation. Quite an achievement at 11:45am.

The second half moves into traditional chamber music territory when the ensemble tackles Mendelssohn’s Piano Sextet in D major. Written when the composer was only 15, its classical structure disguises some theatrical twists and turns which throw the spotlight on pianist Beatrice Nicholas. Her flurries of arpeggios chime with precision and clarity as she rolls up and down the keyboard with an almost supernatural ease, willing each musician to match her skill and enthusiasm. Again, the punchy, intense finale brings the audience to their feet.

Hearing such vibrant and mature performances spilling from a stage filled with youthful faces is truly a wonder. Credit goes to Chi-Chi Nwanoko, who has done the classical world a big favour by seeking out these hyper-talented young people. Inclusion issues aside, she may have played a major role in securing the future of contemporary classical music.

With thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review.

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