Chineke! Orchestra at the Proms 2017. Photograph by Mark Allen. Courtesy of Candace Allen
On 30 August 2017 at 10:15pm, less than two years after their first concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, seventy-five members of the Chineke! Orchestra — all but three of Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) origin — assembled on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. The occasion was what the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle would describe as “arguably one of the most important concerts that the Proms have ever hosted”.
It was not the first time an orchestra of colour had appeared at the Proms. In 2007, the SimÓn Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and their exuberant Latin-infused approach to performance had had the audience stomping and cheering in exultation at the concert’s close. The elite showcase of Venezuela’s El Sistema, a nation-wide programme of music education that had been initiated forty years previously by its visionary founder José Antonio Abreu, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra was the decades-long distillation of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan music students, Many of these students had been playing music together five to seven days a week for as long as fifteen years of their very young lives.
Chineke! is also the brainchild of a visionary, but a profoundly different phenomenon: the internationally renowned double bassist, Chi-chi Nwanoku, a vertiginous sprint. While growing up in England, as the eldest of five children of Nigerian-Irish parentage, Chi-chi displayed spirited pianistic musicality. Her passion though was athletics; she was competing at so high a level nationally that she had a berth to the Montreal Olympics squarely in her sights. But then a casual game of football ended her sprinting career catastrophically at the age of eighteen. Realising that the driven young woman in their charge desperately needed another goal, the Headmistress and music department chair of Chi-chi’s sixth-form encouraged her to focus on a musical career, but with an instrument somewhat less popular than the piano. They suggested the double bass.
Being markedly small in stature Chi-chi countered, “What are you talking about? Look at the double bass! Then look at me!” Their reply: “When has a challenge ever stopped you?” Two years after commencing study of the double bass, she was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music and upon completing her studies soon found herself in international demand. She went on to become a founding member and lead bassist of the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra for thirty years, joined the faculty of the Royal Academy, and was awarded an MBE for her services to music. The list goes on; but then in the autumn of 2014, while listening to a concert given by L’Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguist, her damascene moment occurred.
Some months previously, during one of several conversations, then Minister of Culture Ed Vaizey had asked Chi-chi: “why is it that you’re the only person of colour I ever see on the concert stage?” Chi-chi did not have an answer. In truth she’d been so completely enveloped in the demands and joys of professional musicianship that she’d never given it much thought; and now here in the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall was an audience enchanted by an African orchestra of fervent heart but, as its musicians were essentially and recently self-taught, of comparatively limited skills.
Why was the London classical audience and, more importantly, the vast and primarily untapped multi-ethnic contemporary audience in Britain not being served by a professional classical orchestra that embodied the diverse scope and appeal of the music she loved? Why weren’t more young people of colour resolving to take this demanding but oh so rewarding classical music path? Yes, there had been a reduction of music programmes these last years but, still, how could these young people imagine participating in a world that appeared hermetically sealed? Convinced that the talent to change these perceptions was out there, Chi-chi also realised that she was uniquely positioned to literally change the face of classical music in the UK. “My aim [was and] is,” she recalls, “ to create a space where BME musicians can walk on stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word. If even one BME child feels that their colour is getting in the way of their musical ambitions, then I hope to inspire them, give them a platform, and show them that music, of whatever kind, is for all people.” And the time to begin was right then.
After a series of conversations that were, in the main, overwhelmingly supportive, in March 2015 came an offer-cum-challenge from the Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, and Director of Music, Gillian Moore. If Chi-chi could assemble an orchestra, the Southbank had a date open six months hence.
The traditional classical music norm is to plan three to five years ahead, and this with entities that have already been established. With heroically Amazonian effort, fuelled by sheer will and no sleep, in a period during which she also premiered a double bass concerto and performed in two Glyndebourne operas, Chi-chi went from zero musicians to more than sixty. She assembled players of requisite ability from across the globe relying upon personal contact, trusted recommendation and social media. Convinced that a professional adult orchestra dealt with only one side of the problem she planted the first seeds of Chineke!’s educational efforts by assembling a Junior Orchestra as well. With the help of a tiny team (of which I was a passionate one) Chineke! went from zero funds to the high six figures necessary to finance its debut.
On 13 September 2015, after but five days of rehearsal – as opposed to the Bolívar Orchestra’s years and years – the Chineke! Orchestra took four- and five-star possession of the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage in a programme that established its additional brief of combining so-called core repertoire with lesser-known composers of colour. The success was repeated at its second concert, one year later. This earned Chineke! a second short-listing for the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Ensemble Award and designation as a Southbank Centre Associate Orchestra. In 2017, Chi-chi was named an OBE in the Queen’s birthday list, the Orchestra released its first recording to high acclaim and before its historic Proms debut, had concertized all over the UK with chamber ensemble performances in London, Ghent and Rome. All this was accomplished without the core Arts Council funding of more established orchestras; and Chineke! has only just begun.
In naming her foundation and orchestra Chi-chi chose to reference those she wished to bring centre stage. In her father’s Igbo language Chineke! is at once an exclamation of wonder and God’s embodiment of all good things. This could not be more apt.
© Candace Allen
Photograph by Sheila Rock, courtesy of Candace Allen
For more information about Chineke! and future concerts, please visit http://www.chineke.org. Learn more about Candace Allen at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candace_Allen_(author).