Wednesday evening’s late Prom was a debut for Chineke!, an orchestra founded in 2015 to showcase the works of BME composers, and whose membership – drawn from BME communities across the UK and Europe – is also relatively young. The enthusiastic audience of supporters, together with the slightly unconnected programme (doubtless put together to meet the competing demands of the orchestra’s mission, the need for a Proms favourite, and the ready-to-go repertoire of the guest soloists) imparted the event with a somewhat school-concert atmosphere; the excellent performances, however, were far from this, and confirmed Chineke!’s place in the orchestras-to-look-out-for category.
Hannah Kendall’s Proms commission The Spark Catchers opened the programme; inspired by Lemn Sissay’s 2012-Olympics poem, it is a sectional work that draws its influences from minimalism and jazz. Busy outer sections (in which insistent rhythms in the strings and woodwind underpin long solo lines from brass) bracket a tranquil central section built around note clusters formed from overlapping string lines. The orchestra – under the sure and balletic direction of Kevin John Edusei – gave it an exhilarating account, and it came across well, although the final section felt as though it needed some extra cross-rhythms to bring it to a more satisfying conclusion.
The cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won BBC Young Musician of the Year last year, and this was also his Proms debut, joining the orchestra for Dvořák’s Rondo in G minor and David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody (orchestrated by Max Schelgel). He is a sensitive and accomplished performer, and he delivered the lilting melodies of the Rondo and the technical challenges (busy pizzicato and use of string harmonics) of the Popper with verve and intuition, ably backed by the orchestra, who allowed the solo lines to shine.
The works of the prolific American composer George Walker are sadly under-performed, and his Lyric for Strings marked another Proms debut. It is an early work that showcases Walker’s insistence on the paramount importance of the lyrical line, and its lush string texture brings to mind pieces by his compatriots Samuel Barber and Howard Hanson – indeed, like Barber’s famous Adagio, Lyric is a re-working of a movement from a string quartet. Chineke!’s string section gave it a deeply moving performance that brought out to the full its rich pastoral qualities, and that hopefully spurred Proms programmers to schedule more of Walker’s works.
Three pieces from the 18th century – Handel’s Da tempeste (from Giulio Cesare) and Rejoice greatly (from Messiah), together with Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Au penchant qui nous entrâine in an orchestration by Mauricio Rodriguez – sat oddly with the rest of the programme, but missing them out would have denied us the opportunity of hearing the young soprano Jeanine de Bique, whose tremendous voice is full of fire and cream in equal measure. Her account of Bologne’s mannered song was delivered with gentle soulfulness, and her performances of the two Handel numbers – particularly Rejoice, which was taken at breakneck speed with da capo ornamentation set to max – were full of pyrotechnic agility.
The Prom finished with a rousing performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol which highlighted not only the orchestra’s excellent ensemble playing, but also tight sectional work (the horn chorus was magnificent), and some adroitly executed violin solos from the leader Kelly-Hall-Tompkins.
In all, it was a thrilling debut Prom, although it was a pity that the performers couldn’t have worked in a piece by the British mixed-race composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (the cello-and-orchestra Fantasiestück, perhaps, or some of the many songs), as his works are long overdue for a renaissance. Maybe next time.