Candace Allen, novelist, journalist and Board member of Chineke! – a classical music orchestra like no other – explores its birth and achievements

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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

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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).

 

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A la Ronde: A most unusual house with a most unusual history

Exterior view of A la Ronde, Devon

Exterior view of A la Ronde, Devon. © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A la Ronde is an unusual house conceived of by rather unusual women, the genteel spinster cousins Jane and Mary Parminter. Discover their artistry and charity, and note that only unmarried female kinswomen could inherit their estate. Were Jane and Mary proto feminists?

Quirky and definitely idiosyncratic, A la Ronde radiates a sense of otherworldliness. There is probably no other house quite like it on earth. Resting humbly on a hillside not far from Exmouth in Devon, it’s certainly not a classically beautiful, commanding edifice. Indeed, the house just might befit the dwarf sized hobbit folk who inhabit J R R Tolkien’s children’s fantasy The Lord of the Rings.

It was the Misses Jane (1750-1811) and her cousin Mary Parminter (1767-1849) who gave rise to this extraordinary residence and its grounds upon which they also built a chapel, manse and almshouses. (Jane, incidentally, was Mary’s guardian for over a decade.) Jane was the daughter of a prosperous Devon merchant based in Lisbon, where he first owned a wine export business and later diversified into the cement manufacturing business after the great earthquake in Lisbon of 1755. Jane was brought up in Lisbon and in London. Mary came from a West Country family of landowners and wealthy merchants. When her father died in 1784, Jane and her sister, Elizabeth, Mary and a female companion, a Miss Colville, embarked on an extensive European tour. Elizabeth, alas, died upon the women’s return in 1795. It was likely that Jane’s married sister, Marianne Frend, encouraged the cousins to settle near her home in the fashionable sea bathing resort of Exmouth. Being independently wealthy, Jane and Mary could purchase some 20 acres of land in the region. Their site afforded lovely views overlooking Exmouth and the Exe Estuary.

The most distinguishing features of the house they created are its sixteen sides, linked circularly, and the conical roof (now tiled but originally thatched) with a white painted balcony and cupola atop. The fenestration of the house, originally and even now, is peculiar, too. What remains of the original are the red-bordered diamond shaped windows and the angled green shuttered sashes. Centred inside is an octagon shaped central hall, reaching up from the upper ground floor to the first floor. Originally the surrounding rooms were connected to each other by ante-rooms; now only some of the lobbies remain. The octagon’s walls are painted decoratively with a chevron pattern, most likely conceived of by the Parminters. In between the upper ground floor doors are Mary Parminter’s octagonal-shaped seats with triangular backs, topped with a small octagon shape.

The Octagon Room at A la Ronde, Devon.

The Octagon Hall, A la Ronde, Devon. © National Trust Images/David Garner

The Shell Gallery at A la Ronde, showing a zig-zag shell frieze above a clerestory of eight diamond-paned windows with shell encrusted recesses

The Shell Gallery at A la Ronde, showing a zig-zag shell frieze above a clerestory of eight diamond-paned windows with shell encrusted recesses. © National Trust Images/David Garner

Above the octagon is an extraordinary gallery. The outer wall, painstakingly created by the cousins, is covered with fantastical designs of shells, feathers, seaweed, sand, glass, quartz, quillwork and bones. The materials were gathered from neighbouring woods, fields and the seashore. The Parminter technique entailed sticking materials on card before this was attached to a plaster surface. Other materials were pressed into the lime putty skin that covered a coarser pink plaster before it set. A steep, narrow staircase leads to the gallery, along which there are window recesses, encrusted with decorations such as one finds on the gallery outer wall.

In the drawing room there is an impressive ‘Parminter’ feather frieze made from feathers culled from native game birds and stuck down in a series of concentric patters. In the library, the breakfront of the mahogany bookcase in the library looks as if it will burst with the cousins’ souvenirs: shells, beadwork, semi precious stones and votive statues vie for space on papered raked shelving. You might want to take home the cousins’ tiny 18th century bookcase holding a collection of miniature Regency school textbooks.

Some of the interesting additions added by later generations include, for example, a speaking tube in the library, with a whistle, linked to the lower ground floor kitchen. The wood and sealskin Inuit models on the chimneypiece in the music room were acquired in Canada by the father of the kinswoman, Ursula Tudor-Perkins. (The bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms are on the second floor.)

The cousins’ decorative interests were shared by other middle and upper class men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries, who also created large and small-scale pictures and designs using unusual materials. Alexander Pope’s grotto, created in the early 18th century, near his Twickenham villa, was first finished with shells and pieces of ‘looking glass’ and later transformed into a ‘museum’ of mineralogy and mining, using ores, fossils, crystals, a stalagmite, flint, shells, Bristol and Cornish diamonds, marble, alabaster, snakestones and sponge stones and a section of the basalt Giant’s Causeway. At Goodwood House, near Chichester, there is a Shell House, with over 500,000 shells (the Shell Gallery at A la Ronde is believed to have about 25,000 shells), which was created over seventeen years by Sarah Lennox, the 2nd Duchess of Richmond, and her daughters, Caroline Fox and Emily Kildare. Shells fascinated the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), who determined to collect examples of every known molluscan species; she managed to collect at least 20,000. Mary Delany, a very close friend of hers, is well known for her shell and needlework, as well as her botanical drawings. Thinking of the small scale, after collecting sea shells or buying packets of shells, many ‘genteel’ women would use them to create pictures of birds, animals and people or dress dolls, chandeliers, boxes and vases, picture and mirror frames. One would dip the back side of the shells in hot wax and attach them to the object being decorated.

It’s most likely, suggest most sources, that Jane conceived of and designed A la Ronde, as the inspiration for the quaint abode is believed to be the sumptuous, many sided, sixth century Byzantine Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, and its vaulted octagonal tower and splendid mosaics. The Parminter and Colville entourage would certainly have appreciated it during their tour. Others believe the house is the brainchild of a Commander John Lowder, a property developer who built Lansdowne Place in fashionable Bath, or possibly his young son, John Lowder, an aspiring architect. The actual ‘builder’ could probably have been either the father or the son; they both would have had the practical skills to undertake A la Ronde’s construction. Undoubtedly, Jane and Mary would have designed the interior. Could one imagine otherwise? The grounds, now simply landscaped, were originally elaborately landscaped and ornamented.

A quarter of a mile away from A la Ronde one finds the “facilities for private devotions,” as the Mary Parminter Charity, otherwise known as “Point of View”, describes the manse, chapel and almshouses, completed in 1811. The ‘complex’ is another example of the distinguishing interests of Jane and Mary Parminter. They determined that non-conformists would use the chapel for worship. (Mary’s grandfather and a cousin of hers had been dissenting preachers.) The Trust notes “although of non Jewish extraction, the two spinsters evinced a lively interest in the conversion of Jews to Christianity prior to their promised return to Palestine. This was their ‘point in view’ ”. Mary Parminter specified that the residence should be occupied by a “Minister of the Gospel…a Protestant Dissenter…” , four single approved women over fifty years of age should live in the apartments, and a schoolmistress should be appointed to teach six poor female children. A Jewess who has embraced Christianity shall be given preferential treatment, and “the children of Jewish parents shall in all cases be preferred”.

Nowadays the church, which holds services regularly, is associated with the United Reformed Church. The schoolroom is used as a vestry; there is a meeting room and a new kitchen; both male and female residents are housed in five bungalows on site.

Were Jane and Mary proto feminists? (The word was not in use during their time, and the movement was but a dot on the horizon.) It is quite likely that there would not have been a shortage of suitable men to marry in Jane and Mary’s social circle. Potential partners would have regarded the women’s independent wealth as an asset. So it’s likely that instead of choosing to live within a patriarchal domestic setting, they opted to enjoy a companionship between equals and engage in exceptionally individualistic craft and charitable work. Would their pursuits have been realisable in a traditional ‘Victorian’ domestic setting?

 

Furthermore, Mary’s will stipulated that the estate must be preserved intact, and that only unmarried kinswomen could inherit. Changes in the law allowed one heiress to break the trust and transfer the property to her brother, the Revd. Oswald Reichel, the only male owner the house has ever had. (Was she pressured to do so as she was unmarried and he had a wife who might bear children?) Reichel made several modernising changes; his marriage was childless. It was the ultimate heir Ursula Tudor Perkins who arranged for the National Trust to purchase the property; maintenance was cumbersome and costly.

Had Jane and Mary been living in the early 20th century, it’s conceivable that they might have supported the peaceful suffragists. One can see them establishing a worker’s guild, à la Mary Seton Watts, for women practising shell craft. “Votes for women” could have been written in shells.

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Model of A la Ronde underneath a glass bell jar at A la Ronde, Devon © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Jenny Kingsley

For further information please visit:

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/a-la-ronde – to find out about opening hours and facilities for A la Ronde.

For images of Hobbit abodes, refer to – http://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=kNetVkPF&id=FBC0C4639D1066816B703D4E0D1E457A9A537D5A&thid=OIP.kNetVkPFGOjWU_RSj8QVeQDIEs&q=lord+of+the+rings+hobbit+houses&simid=608041661424994384&selectedIndex=2&ajaxhist=0