Friday, June 05, 2020
The concerts by Chineke!, Europe's first-ever majority BME orchestra, have been among the most uplifting of any I've attended. The phrase "a breath of fresh air" has often come to mind. It is not a question of sitting primly to listen thinking proper thoughts like "Ah, multi-racial, very good...". And it is certainly not about suddenly making classical music "cool" by, ooh, including performers of different races who might wear something relaxed and smile now and then. No. It's a direct and gut-based reaction to the atmosphere in the hall.
There's enthusiasm, delight, revelation - for lots of people come to these events who have rarely or never attended a concert before - and a sense of discovery for us all. For example, music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his daughter Avril Coleridge-Taylor that we have never heard programmed in "mainstream" concerts, or the music of wonderful contemporary composers such as the Errollyn Wallen, Philip Herbert and Daniel Kidane. The excitement in the audience, though, is a response to that on stage.
This week the term "a breath of fresh air" has acquired a whole new meaning. George Floyd's last words "I can't breathe" have swept the world as the emblem signalling, over entrenched racism, that enough is enough.
As a tribute and in solidarity, here is an extract from Chineke!'s concert four years ago at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: this is their "signature" piece, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade. Wayne Marshall conducts.
Coleridge-Taylor, like Barack Obama, was the son of a white mother and a black father. In 1912, aged 37, he collapsed on West Croydon station and died several days later of pneumonia, brought on through exhaustion and overwork. This was partly because although he had written the most popular oratorio of Edwardian England, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, he had sold the rights for a one-off pittance and received no financial recompense whatever for its wild success. Among those who had defended him against the racism he encountered for much of his short life was his teacher at the Royal College of Music, Charles Stanford, who on hearing another student making racist remarks, informed him that Coleridge-Taylor had more talent for music in his little finger than the rest of the students put together.
I want you to hear this music and reflect on where we could all be, instead of the fearsome and disgraceful situation that lies before us now. We could be making music together, in joy, freedom and equality, no matter who we are or where we come from.
You cannot stand in front of something you know is wrong and do nothing. To make a change, one has first to recognise the need for it. And maybe that's where Chineke!'s power comes from: a recognition, an idea, a plan - and action. A breath of fresh air.