Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Chineke! review – Armatrading and Tchaikovsky

25 November 2023

The orchestra bring their customary élan to the world première of Joan Armatrading’s first, and Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphonies.


Chineke! & Andrew Grams (Photo: Chuko Cribb)

“Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!” remarked Duke Ellington of his composing partner Billy Strayhorn, and the jazz arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite that’s often credited to Ellington was Strayhorn’s idea, and the first piece for which he was given joint credit. Chineke! made an excellent choice of opening their concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday with the overture to the arranged suite, as it perfectly set the tone of this genre-fusion of an evening. Under the baton of Adam Gibbs, a current member of Chineke!’s Assistant Conductor scheme, the orchestra brought to the work all the pzazz that its originators intended. The classic Tchaikovsky delicate string opening soon gave way to a full, up-tempo, syncopated romp in which the trombone section gave throat to that wonderful warm solidity one associates with the big band sound. Smoky and strident solos from sax and trumpet followed, blending into the rhythmic surety of the rest of the band, to pull the whole into a delicious taster for the larger works to come.

Joan Armatrading is a musical legend, with 20 studio albums, countless live performances, and Grammy and BRIT award nominations to show for it. Her style is broad, and, over the 50 years of her career, she has embraced influences from pop, rock, jazz, reggae, blues and soul. That she should add ‘classical’ to her portfolio is no surprise, as she regards music as simply ‘music’, and her listening tastes are very wide indeed. Friday evening, then, saw the first performance of her symphony, a 30 minute work in four movements.

As expected, the piece is full of melodies and thrumming rhythms. The first movement’s opening measured brass fanfare gives way to a yearning tune on the cellos, which is taken up by the rest of the orchestra into a series of interludes that have an almost Coplandish feel about them. The second movement begins with solid string chords that mutate into another charming melody, and a more rapid passage. The rhythmic ‘jig’ of the third ‘scherzo’ movement sits in contrast with the slightly ‘oriental’ flavour of the opening of the fourth, which finishes with an entirely hummable melody over a driving orchestral pulse.

“…the orchestra brought to the work all the pzazz that its originators intended”


Chineke! woodwind section (Photo: Chuko Cribb)

It’s an enjoyable piece, and a credit to its composer, but whether it’s truly a symphony – even within the broad categorisation we’ve had since the 20th century – is debatable. Lovely though it is, there’s a two-dimensional quality to it; it’s very sectional, with little in the way of harmonic development or more expansive symphonic architecture; there are quite a lot of unison and homophonic passages, and where counterpoint is deployed, it tends to be canon, staggered entry, or rhythmic decoration of melody. Instrumentation tends to fall into in blocs or sections, so the orchestral textures feel somewhat monochrome. Perhaps ‘suite’ might be a better descriptor. All this, though, is set off by the fact that this is a brilliant achievement from someone whose musical genres have been radically different. The delight engendered by the work was also in no small measure down to the orchestra under Andrew Grams, who gave it a performance full of textural nuance, from the warm string choruses to the adroitly controlled brass, and whose understanding of the rhythmic drive and dynamic shading of the piece brought interest and star quality to the performance.

Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony is, arguably, the most tuneful of the six, and it’s chock full of melodies that you can almost put words to (indeed, in musically irreverent circles, there are words to some of them!). From the first measured and placed bars of the famous ‘motto’ theme with the clarinet just poking out from behind the strings, one knew that this was going to be a considered and brilliant performance. Andrew Grams is a very physical – even balletic – conductor, and with his fluid gestures he got every ounce of emotional tension out of the orchestra; here are just a few special moments: the allargando in the first movement that made way for a beautifully rendered bassoon passage; the rich, vibrant violins and perfectly judged horn at the opening of the second movement, along with some magnificently raspy trombones for the return of the ‘motto’ theme; a lovely set of contrasting lilts for the waltzes of the third movement, with some excellent co-ordination in the strings; thrilling ‘busyness’ and some firm and assured trumpet work at the closing of the fourth movement. Who – as the Gershwin brothers might have said – could ask for anything more?

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