Diversity is the gift that never stops giving. It has immeasurably broadened our awareness of how deep and rich the veins of classical music are throughout the ages and across the four corners of our planet. Until this concert by Chineke! Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Parnther, I had been unfamiliar with the work of George Walker. The first black graduate from the Curtis Institute and the first black composer to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, he died as recently as 2018, at the age of 96. Having marked his Proms debut in 2017 with Lyric for Strings, Chineke! now turned its attention to his Trombone Concerto, written in 1967. And, as Chi-chi Nwanoku asked the audience in a short address, how often do you encounter a solo work for this instrument in concert? 

It is unmistakably American in idiom. The soloist was Kenneth Thompkins, principal trombone of the Detroit Symphony, and he revelled in both the virtuosity and the full expressive range of the solo part: agitated, punchy and extrovert, with excitable jazz-like syncopation, in the opening Allegro, more sombre and lyrically inflected in the central Grave, and playfully unbuttoned in the concluding rondo movement. What was also evident was the accomplished solo writing for other instruments as well as several instances of magical atmosphere. The second movement begins with a bassoon solo over lower strings, followed by a muted trumpet before the trombone’s first entry. And at its close signalled by a morendo there was a brief piccolo solo almost Mahlerian in its haunting qualities.

It is exactly two years since I last heard Chineke! play. It still displays a high degree of infectious enthusiasm stretching into the back desks of the violins, but less than a quarter of the personnel was the same as in 2020. Nevertheless, the international concert of nations was well represented, with players from Brazil and Canada down to Ukraine and Venezuela. However, the orchestral sound was on the grainy side without much blend in the woodwind or subtleties among the strings. It was good to hear Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert at the start, and I was reminded of the wistful lyricism of his contemporary Ketèlbey (born in the same year), though the slightly brash approach was more reminiscent of a Sunday afternoon bandstand in the local park. Poor intonation from the horns, who did not have the best of nights elsewhere, marred Ravel’s Pavane, yet there were also tantalising moments where the strings did justice to the shimmering effects so characteristic of this composer. 

Beethoven’s Pastoral has, in Tovey’s words, “the enormous strength of someone who knows how to relax”. In the first two movements Parnther seemed to have his eye too obviously on later dramatic interest. The “awakening” already anticipated the peasants’ merrymaking of the central movement in its briskness, while in the “Scene by the brook” woodwind soloists were not encouraged to sing out and the bird-like cadenza with flute, oboe and clarinet towards the close was despatched with minimum effort and charm. However, the “Storm” was thrillingly done, with fortissimo rolls of the hard-sticked timpani and commanding contributions from trumpets and trombones scything through the seething strings. This was Zeus with a full armoury of thunderbolts displaying mighty displeasure from on high. 

I wonder whether disproportionate rehearsal time accounted for a more focused and therefore ultimately satisfying account of the concluding “Shepherds’ Hymn”. Not only was there a feeling of shared radiance in the strings, the shafts of sunlight bursting through the rapidly retreating clouds, but also a sense of collective exhilaration underpinned by powerful brass contributions.

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