EIF: Chineke! Orchestra
Old College Quad & Edinburgh Academy Junior School
Scheduled to appear at the Queen’s Hall during last year’s cancelled Festival, the chamber group drawn from the Chineke! Orchestra brought a shorter programme to the Old College Quad, and it did Ralph Vaughan Williams few favours. He disowned his early Piano Quintet in C minor and it is undoubtedly less played now than the Nonet by a teenage Samuel Coleridge-Taylor of a decade earlier, which has been championed by Chineke! and recently played by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and pianist Tom Poster’s Kaleidoscope Collective.
Even without some poor balance in the sound mix for the quintet, it would have suffered from the comparison, the nonet having better tunes, and more sparkling rhythms. It was also clear that a few of those on the stage have a real passion for the piece, with some great playing from the winds, which included Sasha Rattle, son of conductor Sir Simon, on clarinet.
The 2021 Festival programme also brought a visit by the Chineke! Orchestra itself, although it was a very small version of it, with only double the number of players seen in the ensemble. The concert it played, under conductor William Eddins, who has a longer association with EIF, was still something of an occasion. Both works were premieres – one brand new and the other, I think, for Scotland and by Scot Judith Weir – and the composers were in the audience to acknowledge the applause.
Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Blush, commissioned by Chineke! to accompany Weir’s woman.life.song, might almost have been marking the recent 50th anniversary of the score to the film Shaft. There were not only hints of movie score about it, but also the flavour of orchestration of the early 1970s jazz orchestras who played them. The composer made full use of a three-piece Latin rhythm section and the ensemble’s flautist had most of the lead lines.
The group expanded only slightly for the song-cycle Jessye Norman commissioned from Weir and writers Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is not unfair to acknowledge that mezzo Andrea Baker does not have the magisterial presence of Norman, and the shifts of tone and style over the sequence make considerable demands.
Angelou’s thoughts On Youth and On Maturity frame the work and the finest poetry comes in the middle, from Toni Morrison, and is set to the most distinctive of Weir’s music. Pinkola Estes supplies the early light relief with Breasts!, the words of an “innocent wild-child” anxious to grow, set to something akin to a show-tune, with jazzy acoustic guitar, and then the later devotional texts on motherhood, its vexations rather than consolations, and the pain of losing the one who brought you into the world.
There are no passengers onstage with Weir’s score, which constantly surprises, and Baker has a lot of power at her disposal even if her singing sometimes lacked the nuance the work demands. The slightly random points at which the audience chose to clap also suggested the overall shape of the work was less apparent than it might have been. For all that, I’d still be keen to hear it again.