|Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Kevin John Edusei (conductor) and the Chineke! Orchestra.
Photo: Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre
It's hard enough to put an ordinary orchestra together... so just imagine the effort involved in assembling the magnificent crew that took the stage at the Royal Festival Hall last night for the climax of the Southbank's Africa Utopia festival. Chineke! - the brainchild of double-bass suprema Chi-chi Nwanoku - is Europe's first all-BME symphony orchestra and is designed a) to celebrate the talent of its members and b) to show the rest of us that not all faces on the concert platform need to be white or Far Eastern. The atmosphere of the RFH's foyers, too, was transformed; warm, relaxed, smiley people of every shape, size and colour were there, enjoying the festive programming, foyer events and the food market outside, and the hall itself was packed.
The Chineke! players come from all over the world. They range from young students of the Purcell School and Birmingham Conservatoire to such luminaries as leader Ann-Estelle Médouze, concertmaster of the Orchestre Nationale de l'Ile de France, the lead trumpet of the Met in New York, the violist of the Fine Arts Quartet, the stupendous flautist Eric Lamb, British cellist and educator Desmond Neysmith, principal second violin Samson Diamond who started with Buskaid in Soweto, and of course Chi-chi herself. Charlotte Barbour-Condini, a BBC Young Musician finalist as a recorder player, is here playing the violin.
Photo: Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre
Despite this disparate nature, even if the ensemble can't always be perfect, there were moments of absolute magic where a section began to play virtually as one instrument, notably the first violins. The conductor, Kevin John Edusei, a young competition winner and now chief conductor of the Münchner Symphoniker, offered clarity, swing and masses of positive and unifying energy.
The evening got off to a flying start with Sibelius's Finlandia. Odd choice? Not so: along came the chorus of Cape Town Opera, which has been performing its Mandela Trilogy in the festival and, ranked up the aisles, they transformed the big tune into a stirring anthem with nice, up-to-the-minute, inclusive words. It would be easy to pick holes in that idea (the cited flora sounded a tad Alpine) - but my goodness, I was right in among them in an aisle seat, and my own background is South African; my late parents left in the '50s and my father refused to go back until Apartheid was brought down, and I thought of how much this evening would have meant to them, and I cried.
Next, a transformation to the 18th century: the three-part Overture to L'amant anonyme by Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges: expert violinist, fencer and favourite of Marie-Antoinette. It's a piece of much charm and the Chineke strings, with Isata Kanneh-Mason at the harpsichord, brought it lilt, warmth and bounce.
Sheku was centre stage for the Haydn concerto and again one had the sense of history in the making. With virtuoso aplomb as cool as the proverbial cucumber punch, a splendid, pure and focused sound and a genuine, smiling stage presence, the 17-year-old cellist is going places, musically mature beyond his years - his encore, Bloch's Abodah in Sheku's own arrangement, was deeply reflective and moving. He had a hero's welcome, and deservedly so.
And to close, the Dvorák "New World" Symphony - a piece I realise one doesn't hear often enough because it, like so many other outright masterpieces (Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Mozart's Piano Concerto No.21, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2, etc), has been siphoned off into "popular classics" evenings and therefore often shunned by the bigwigs. But these pieces are popular because they are fabulous works, and I have a special soft spot for Dvorák 9 because it was the first symphony I ever heard live, at the good old RFH when I was 7 years old. So it's always a treat. The drive, passion and blazing beauty of sound that Chineke and Edusei brought it warmed us from head to foot and even if I sometimes missed perhaps an earthier, wilder, more mystical-magical quality in it, each bar nevertheless had its thrills. The audience clapped between movements, a few people went out or came in, and you know something? It was fine.
It does seem extraordinary, of course, that in proud multi-cultural London, in the 21st century, it still has to be proved that a BME orchestra can a) exist and b) play every bit as well as anyone else. But if that is what it takes to wake people up, make them see, think and respond, then that's what it takes. We have to do what it takes. And it's fabulous, and it's working.
Above all, this concert showed us all what absolute rubbish it is to think that music could be anything but for everybody. All these divisions - race, colour, creed, nationality, "relevance" - are imposed by us, not by the music, and do nothing but limit people. Music transcends the lot.
Bravi, Chineke! Brava, Chi-chi! And bravo, Sheku - we will be seeing much, much more of you.