This was the first time I’d seen Chineke! play – an orchestra that defies all expectations and flattens marketing strategies. A rich experience. A tantalising vision of how classical music could be.
Self-evident before anyone tuned their instrument, let alone played a note, was the energy in the room. The sense of anticipation amongst the audience was reflected back by the players, fueling a magical kind of music-making which in turn increased the excitement and appreciation. Chineke! creates a self-powering positive feedback loop, much-needed in these febrile times. Never before have I been in a concert where I’ve wanted to join in the applause after each movement of a symphony. That says something about what the audience contributions to the end product.
Three years after it closed for refurbishment, one of the striking reminders about the QEH is its generous, supportive but oddly deceptive acoustic. Instruments at the back of the orchestra are given extra depth (I’m not entirely clear why), whilst those musicians closer to the audience benefit from a dryer acoustic. In that way, we hear distinct detail and depth. That makes it an enticing offer for a potential audience member and a delicious challenge for a performing group.
That meant we got to a remarkably tight string section. The articulation in the pianissimos throughout was electrifyingly uniform, with spirited playing from front desk to back. There are no passengers in Chineke! – everyone is invested in the process, empowered by their own music-making and by the reaction of the crowd. And frankly, anyone who doesn’t experience an increased heart rate when an entire bass section rattles on a low note is a cold joyless individual.
Conductor Anthony Parnther possesses an unfussy clear beat that last night brought sections alive. Every now again there were wizard-like flourishes. What underpins Parnther’s technique is a pleasingly modest approach to the art of conducting.
Assertive and assured playing right from the start meant that moments where focus lessened slightly was more noticeable. Trifling, but worth noting. The Coleridge-Taylor Mendelssohn-esque ballad set the bar high at the beginning of the concert, for example. But in Britten’s Building of the House there were moments when the firsts lacked precision in the upper registers. In some of the first movement of Beethoven’s 4th Symphony scurrying passages sometimes lacked the clarity in the first violin part. Later in the third movement, the wind and strings jostled for unity, finding their combined groove towards the end of the movement.
Special mention for Daniel Kildane’s Dream Song. The world premiere combined an extract from Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech sung by Roderick Williams, with the cacophonous soundscapes depicting a hostile world, and mysterious nearly-indistinct contributions from the choir. A thought-provoking work, laying bare the famous words King is known by, reminding those of us how far we’ve yet to travel before we’ve come good on his vision.
It was here the evening took on another perspective for me. The presence of an a majority Black and Asian and Minority Ethnic membership orchestra musicians pokes and nags at anyone’s unwitting sense of white privilege. But it does so at the same time exhilarating music-making ringing all around. Being reminded of our individual responsibility to improve the world for one another makes for a powerful concert-going experience.