Chineke! Orchestra, founded in 2015, is the first professional orchestra in Europe to be made up of majority Black, Asian and ethnically diverse musicians. In the five years since its founding, Chineke! has performed at the BBC Proms and made several recordings. This pre-recorded concert streamed from London's Royal Festival Hall included two orchestral repertoire classics by Haydn and Dvořák, but the real interest was found in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade for Orchestra, Op. 33, and, especially, American composer Adolphus Hailstork's moving Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed (1979). Kalena Bovell, assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, was a communicative leader in this concert, with clear baton technique and visual expressiveness with the players.

Kalena Bovell conducts Chineke! © Chris Christodoulou
Kalena Bovell conducts Chineke!
© Chris Christodoulou

Coleridge-Taylor's brief Ballade, composed in 1898, with its tempestuous emotions and great tunes, is full-throated romanticism and not what the title might superficially indicate. It opens with wind trills, and uneasy orchestral movement, mostly in minor keys. The materials are developed, featuring a solo by the outstanding principal horn, building to a fortissimo stormy ending. It was a highly effective curtain raiser.

Trumpeter Aaron Akugbo was a refined soloist in Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E flat major. His sound was sweet, often lyrical, with the ability to play both legato and to manage the treacherous multi-octave leaps that Haydn sets as challenges to the soloist. The second movement was especially fine, with Akugbo's phrasing of the lyrical solo line. The third movement's acrobatics were played with perfect clarity and intonation. By the third movement Akugbo seemed relaxed and enjoying himself. Bovell and Chineke! were sensitive accompanists. Since there was no live audience for the concert, the orchestral players themselves applauded, cheered, and stomped their feet.

Aaron Akugbo © Chris Christodoulou
Aaron Akugbo
© Chris Christodoulou

Black American composer Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) composed Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed in 1978, and the work was first performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1980. It was inspired by the memory of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Chineke! gave the UK premiere of this emotional work, which opens with soft rising string chords, sustained and mournful, like a chorale. The opening rising motif is then taken up by three unison flutes, and then by the horns. The music is dignified. The central section is ethereal and gorgeously orchestrated, with harp arpeggios, distantly ringing bells, and rising passages in the orchestra, parts overlapping and repeating, but always at a moderate dynamic. After a moment of silence, the opening music returns building to a final grand minor chord. This was a beautiful performance of a work deserving of greater attention.

Chineke! Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall © Chris Christodoulou
Chineke! Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall
© Chris Christodoulou

Antonín Dvořák's Symphony no. 8 in G major was the rousing closer, although I felt that the orchestra's best playing had occurred earlier in the program. The orchestra's sound was cohesive — the musicians were distanced, but no one was masked — and the solos, especially with the oboe and flute in the second movement were well-matched. The long-scaled phrases in the third movement were well-managed. The final movement, however, had several ensemble intonation issues, and the contrast between the slower sections and the prevailing Allegro did not maintain momentum. The rousing final passages would, however, have whipped a live audience into a frenzy.


This performance was reviewed from the Chineke! Orchestra's video stream

***11