The last concert at the Royal Festival Hall before lockdown featured Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a taut account “blazing with revolutionary fire”. A lot has happened in the world since, of course, not least the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the unlawful killing of George Floyd in May. A seminal moment in the UK protests that followed came when a black man stepped in to rescue a white counter-protester caught in a confrontation outside the Southbank Centre. Dylan Martinez’ photograph of Patrick Hutchinson carrying this man to safety went viral, more powerful than many words could express.

Yomi Sode and Chineke! perform <i>Remnants</i> © Southbank Centre | Mark Allan
Yomi Sode and Chineke! perform Remnants
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Last night, before a handful of guests but recorded for future streaming, the hall resounded to Beethoven’s Fifth again. This time it was performed by Chineke!, the first majority Black, Asian and ethnically diverse orchestra in Europe. It was preceded by the world premiere of Remnants, the response of composer James B Wilson and poet Yomi Sode to that defining BLM moment, in a programme conducted by Kevin John Edusei entitled “Black Legacies”. 

Nervy strings and scurrying woodwinds, aggressive brass and snarling percussion set an angry scene. String swells herald something ominous… but just when it’s getting interesting, Wilson’s music subsides to suspended chords, groans over which Sode recites his text. The repeated refrain “We have been here before” sums up the poet’s anger and frustration, blacks “forcefully swallowing our dignity”. The photograph is likened to a Caravaggio, “to Christ on the cross”. It’s undeniably powerful oratory, but it felt detached from the rest of the score.

Kevin John Edusei conducts Chineke! Orchestra © Southbank Centre | Mark Allan
Kevin John Edusei conducts Chineke! Orchestra
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Perhaps as a result, the closing performance of Beethoven’s Fifth felt similarly angry. The opening movement was curt, clipped, driven by Edusei at a breathless pace, the Fate motif growing increasingly testy. The Andante con moto was taken at a flowing tempo, almost like the Pastoral’s babbling brook, while the horns launched the theme of the third movement with a real swing. The contrapuntal Trio section was taken at breakneck speed, garbled and challenging clean articulation, but bristling fiercely. Ironically, the finale sounded a lot less hectic, the performance’s pent-up anger released not in triumph, but great joy. 

The cultural response to Black Lives Matter, particularly in the United States, has seen a noticeable increase in the programming of works by black composers, from the Chevalier de Saint-Georges to George Walker. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a mixed race English composer and conductor, was highly celebrated during his short lifetime (he died in 1912 at the age of just 37). Scenes from his hit trilogy of cantatas The Song of Hiawatha were performed at a remarkable 54 Prom concerts between the 1899 and 1942 seasons. His African Suite is much less well known, probably deservedly so. Only the Danse nègre finale commands attention, played with plenty of bite from Chineke!, the gritty double basses driven on by principal Chi-chi Nwanoku. In the cheerful opening movement, one could hear Coleridge-Taylor’s admiration for Dvořák, while the polite (overlong) waltz showed off Chineke!’s string sheen, over 40 players spread across the RFH platform. 

Jeneba Kanneh-Mason © Southbank Centre | Mark Allan
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Like Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price enjoyed considerable renown in her lifetime, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s. The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in her music. Chineke! recently performed her First Symphony – an excellent work – and here gave her Piano Concerto in D minor in a new edition of the original 1934 orchestration. It’s an attractive, compact work – under 20 minutes in length – its single movement composed in three distinct sections. Jeneba Kanneh-Mason was the sensitive soloist. This isn’t a barnstorming concerto to show off a flashy technique, but a sincere, uncomplicated piece, especially the gentle middle section, laced with wistful nostalgia which Kanneh-Mason spun tenderly. The folksy finale, a juba, which was danced on American plantations, was performed infectiously with plenty of percussive pizzazz to raise the spirits. The minuscule audience of invited guests was easily outgunned by Chineke!’s foot-stamping, a well deserved collegiate accolade for a fine performance.

This performance will be streamed on Chineke!'s Youtube channel from 23rd November