Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Chineke! review – contemplations on life and death

3 May 2024

Works, as always, celebrating ethnic diversity, by Goodyear, Berlioz and Nunes Garcia from the brilliant Chineke!


Chineke! (Photo: Chuko Cribb)

The Chineke! Foundation simply goes from strength to strength. Friday evening’s concert not only gave us an opportunity to witness the orchestra’s usual high standard of performance, but saw an expansion of the organisation’s work in a first outing for the 80 voice Chineke! Chorus. As always, their mission to present music by Black and ethnic minority composers brought newly heard music to the platform: the world première of a new work by Canadian composer Stewart Goodyear, and the first UK performance of a Requiem by José Maurício Nunes Garcia, an African/Brazilian contemporary of Mozart and Beethoven.

Stewart Goodyear’s four movement suite, Life, Life Life strikes exactly the right balance between challenge and accessibility; it is neither too academically rarefied, nor is it the cluster-chord pablum of some of the Post-Minimalists. Written in memory of the composer’s mother, who died last year, it paints a perfect picture of someone larger than life, through cleverly contrasting orchestral textures. Laughter is depicted (brief, jerky, descending passages), as are singing (a gorgeous hymn-like second movement for strings only), storytelling (the syncopations of the third movement, with its rhapsodic trumpet duet) dreaming (crystalline violins and ‘yawning’ figures for cellos and basses) and dance (the quiet string lilt and clarinet solo of the fourth movement, that open out into an ingeniously constructed calypso from which the melody peeps out in the brass). There are touches of Bernstein’s jazz style here, but it’s very much a new and exciting work.

The orchestra brought their heart and soul to the piece, giving it a first performance to be proud of; dynamic and tempo were deftly judged under conductor Malcolm J Merriweather’s sure yet flexible direction. The differing string textures were artfully realised, and full marks go to Aaron Akugbo and Gabriel Dias for their sensitively delivered trumpet playing.

Although Hector Berlioz is a well-known composer, not a few of his works remain underperformed, and one such is his 1829 Prix de Rome entry, the cantata for soprano La mort de Cléopatre. It’s a seamless mix of recitative and aria using text from a poem by Pierre-Ange Vieillard in which the eponymous queen pours out her emotions before her famous final encounter with an asp.

“The orchestra brought their heart and soul to the piece, giving it a first performance to be proud of…”

Chineke! Idunnu Münch/Malcolm J Merriweather

Idunnu Münch & Malcolm J Merriweather (Photo: Chuko Cribb)

Mezzo soprano Idunnu Münch brought an emotionally exciting performance to the platform, giving us tenderness, regret and fire in equal portions. Her flexible voice – plenty of rich power in the lower register, syrupy opulence in the mid range, and steely solidity at the top – fitted the role superbly. The orchestra provided the perfect foil, delivering Berlioz’s trademark orchestral gestures of bombast and wistfulness with a sure understanding of the idiom. The only cavil here (and for the subsequent Requiem) was over the lack of text or translation – in a spirit of accessibility, words (especially in languages other than English), either on a printed sheet or as surtitles, are essential for an audience.

José Maurício Nunes Garcia, born in Rio de Janeiro of two mixed-race parents, wrote at a time when Portugal’s colonies were very much part of its Empire – indeed, the Portuguese Prince Regent’s court established itself in Rio, and Nunes Garcia was appointed Master Musician of the Royal Chapel there (albeit amid considerable racial prejudice) in 1808.

The composer’s 1799 Requiem, at first hearing, might be said to be somewhat derivative of Mozart’s unfinished work of eight years previously. We don’t know for certain that Nunes Garcia was aware of the piece, but certainly, many of the decisions around shape and rhythm of the movements are similar (the opening ‘Introitus’ has a similarly slow tactus; the ‘Kyrie’ is a fugue; the ‘Dies Irae’ has a similar drive). There is, nonetheless, some unique and lovely writing here: the clarinet figure that floats over the strings in the opening bars returns to delight on several occasions, for example. The composer also uses the four soloists sparingly: there are extended arias for soprano (‘Ingemisco’) and bass (‘Offertorio’), but they are often used as a quartet or trio simply to interpolate the odd couple of lines as a change in dynamic/timbre from the larger choral statements.

As expected, the orchestra approached the work’s Classical language with understanding, and delivered a nuanced account – the horns and bassoons in the ‘Tuba mirum’ were adroitly co-ordinated for texture and dynamic; that little clarinet phrase was enchanting on each hearing, and the string underlay throughout was judged for period style.

The four soloists acquitted themselves well. Soprano Isabelle Peters has a sweet voice that’s quite vibrato heavy, but it worked for her material. Tenor Zwakele Tshabalala has recently gained plaudits for his performance in ENO’s production of The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s not difficult to tell, from the bright and clear tone that he deployed for his sadly brief passages, that he will go far. The bass-baritone Rodney Earl Clarke brought to the role sonority with honey in his middle and upper registers, although the part requires some power and focus in the lower register, which weren’t always present. Working as a quartet or trio (sadly the mezzo role – sung by Münch – doesn’t get anything other than these) the voices blended extremely well.

For a choir that has only had six rehearsals together, Chineke! Chorus acquitted themselves abundantly. As with the orchestra, they inhabited well the textures and dynamics of the Classical idiom, and they displayed a well-trained coherence. For future performances, though, they need to work a little more on vocal production, as the choral sound was sometimes a touch unfocussed, with a result that they were occasionally swamped by the orchestra.

buy Chineke! MP3s or CDs
Spotify Chineke! on Spotify

More on Chineke!
Chineke! review – contemplations on life and death
Chineke! review – assured performances of Watts, Saint-Saëns and Coleridge-Taylor
Chineke! review – Armatrading and Tchaikovsky
BBC Proms: Chineke! / Kanneh-Mason / Bovell @ Royal Albert Hall, London
Chineke! / Edusei @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London