There’s a comforting feeling that arises from attending a concert with old-fashioned programming. An overture, a concerto, a symphony. Classic stuff. Chineke!, however, is far from a classic orchestra; founded in 2015 to provide career opportunities to young BME classical musicians in the UK and Europe, the orchestra has gone from strength to strength presenting programmes that not only incorporate standard repertoire, but showcase the works of BME composers.
The symphony, on Thursday, was Brahms’ second – full of airy jollity and eminently hummable melodies, it’s the natural successor to Beethoven’s Pastoral. Chineke!’s conductor, Kevin John Edusei has exactly the right style for the work: he conducted with an almost balletic grace (and without a score) bringing the orchestra with him on Brahms’ bucolic Alpine journey. Tempo and dynamic were controlled effortlessly, and the orchestra responded to Brahms’ rich orchestral textures with sympathetic ease. The brass chorus were just occasionally not quite together, and there was a touch of a wobble in the link between strings and woodwind in the middle of the first movement, but these are small quibbles. The momentary weight at the opening of the Adagio was subtly expressed, and the counterpoint later in the movement was clean. The cello pizzicato in the Allegretto was light and airy, and the final movement, although taken at quite a brisk pace, never lost focus.
Von Weber’s overture from Oberon was full of the light and shade that the composer demands. The horn solo at the opening was sensitively delivered by Pierre Buizer, and after a precisely controlled set of string ‘chuckles’ the orchestra delivered the Allegro con fuoco with determined gusto. Again, Edusei’s understanding of speed and volume was to the fore, the orchestra following his direction with a practised synchronicity.
The star of the show, though, was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s G-minor violin concerto. Although Coleridge-Taylor’s works receive a reasonable amount of air-play, to hear them in a live concert is rare, and Chineke!’s championing of the composer is laudable, as he has a unique voice. The concerto was his last major work, written in 1912, the year of his untimely death at 37. It had a difficult gestation – an American commission, it was originally intended to be based on melodies from spirituals, but was re-written a couple of times following the composer’s change of direction (and a loss of the score on its transatlantic crossing!).
This tragic history, coupled with its minor key, might suggest a concerto laden with gloom and melancholy, and its funereal opening seems to confirm this. But it isn’t long before optimistic melodic material bubbles up, and the solemn march gives way to delightful Edwardian whimsy. And Edwardian the concerto undoubtedly is. Yes, we hear melodies that might have come from the composer’s intention to incorporate spirituals, but they are transformed into the kind of lyrical strolling insouciance that Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture is bursting with (there is even a point in the first movement where “I do like to be beside the seaside” seems imminent).
The concerto doesn’t require too much heavy lifting by the soloist (although it has its occasional pyrotechnic moments), but Elena Urioste made it, nonetheless, absolutely her own, displaying a lightness of touch as well as a rich tone (particularly in the low-string passages and the cadenza in the first movement) that brought out to the full the piece’s charm. The orchestra framed the solo work expertly – developing the violin themes, inserting bubbling woodwind passages, providing occasionally contrasting unease, or becoming the military band in the park with a polished sensitivity to the work’s atmosphere.