Adelaide Festival Review: Chineke! bedroom set

Chineke! The orchestra was formed in 2015 to champion change and diversity in classical music and, while it’s a shame the full orchestra couldn’t make it to Adelaide, yesterday’s Festival debut evening by an ensemble of 10 musicians were memorable.

Led by Chineke! Founder, bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, the musicians – sometimes in quintet form – presented a program that was true to the ensemble’s goal of creating opportunities for black and ethnically diverse musicians. Nwanoku noted that there were no two pieces written by composers from the same cultural or ethnic background or from the same country.

Also, Chineke! commissioned two new pieces from Australian Aboriginal composers. Last night was the premiere of ‘The Rising of the Mother Country’, by leading didgeridoo player, composer and vocalist William Barton, who joined the ensemble on stage. (Tonight’s program – Thursday, March 17 – includes a commission from Deborah Cheetham.)

First, the concert begins with nine musicians – violin, viola, cello, double bass, bassoon, clarinet, oboe, flute and French horn – with Nonet No. 2 by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů.

Like much of the first half, it’s a playful and melodic choice, with a nice interplay between the instruments. Chineke’s sound is big and full of expression, with a beautiful French horn solo by Francisco Gomez standing out here.

The next quintet in G minor by Russian Sergei Prokofiev – well known for his “Peter and the Wolf” and his ballet Romeo and Juliet – is an intriguing sequel, very resonant with the previous piece (the composers were alive in the same period of the early 20th century). Again, the musicians each have their chance to shine and the overall ensemble is equally exuberant in this exploratory piece which, while distinctly melodic in Prokofiev’s style, also experiments with innovative sounds for the strings in particular.

The first part was completed by the delicious “Red Clay and Mississippi Delta” by contemporary American composer Valerie Coleman, written for wind quintet. Musicians loved it – as did audiences – with its combination of virtuoso tracks and fusion of a number of American musical idioms, including the blues.

Chineke! Bedroom set. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

It’s been a big week for William Barton in Adelaide. Over the weekend, he added his beautiful voice and didgeridoo to rock band Goanna’s WOMADelaide show, taking that performance to a new level. After last night’s intermission, he joined the ensemble to perform his commissioned work – a complex interplay of ideas from European and Indigenous musical traditions.

A low growl marks the beginning – Nwanoku’s double bass sounding remarkably like a didge drone. Then Barton’s beautiful tenor voice sings a lullaby theme. The up and down strokes of the strings give way to a melody first in the viola, then in the French horn and piano. Hesitant pulsating sounds develop – a panoply of sounds emerges.

Barton says that in writing the piece he visualized the coming together of all nations – with each instrument performing a part of the player’s landscape, “their own history and the lineages of their mother country”. For the listener, it certainly has this meaning: not quite a tension between more traditional chamber sounds and the didge and rattle of Barton’s percussion sounds of an older tradition, but rather a growing interplay of ideas. It’s beautiful, sometimes disturbing, if your ear seeks resolution.

After this whirlwind interaction, Barton returns to the sung lullaby. The audience is standing.

Since its origins, Chineke! was a champion composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), born in England to an African father and a white mother. His Nonet in F minor was written when he was a teenager and, despite being the oldest piece in this concert, is a revelation. Although this is the most traditional form of this program, it sounds so modern, so fresh – beautiful melodies. You can hear why he has been compared to Mahler or, sometimes, Dvořák.

Chineke! brings an approach to chamber music that is refreshing and joyful – I’ve never heard so many delighted laughs at a concert like this before.

I hope that we will see them again and that the spirit of this project can lead to measures favoring the same development of diversity both among classical music audiences and among performers.

Chineke! play again at Adelaide Town Hall tonight (Thursday).

Click here for more coverage of Adelaide Festival 2022.

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About Roy B. Westling

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