EIF: Chineke! Chamber Players

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The Chineke! Orchestra has made a profound and lasting impression on the classical music world, with its commitment to ethnic diversity among its players and the composers it performs. It’s not a strangulating, exclusive deal – look at the wide multi-cultural spread among its ranks – but it’s a prominent one. Classical music, and society, are all the better for it.

We experienced that in miniature on Thursday, when the Chineke! Chamber Players took to the Queen’s Hall stage for a programme that delved into music by composers much of the audience are unlikely to have heard of – Black Americans William Grant Still (1895-1978) and 52-year-old Valerie Coleman, and contemporary native Australian artists Deborah Cheetham and William Barton – as well as Mendelssohn, his posthumously-published Piano Sextet Op110.

That’s all very well, but at the end of the day if a piece of music is merely fair-to-middling it’s not going to set the heather on fire, and the first half of this concert certainly left this listener unconvinced we’d heard anything particularly exceptional. Many of the performances, a range of ensemble mixes culminating in Barton’s frontline appearance on didgeridoo, struggled to make proverbial silk purses.

Still’s Folk Suite No 1 undoubtedly bears a popular charm, its references to African folk song, Black spiritual and high-spirited Jewish songs very much a starter for ten, with a catchy opening movement simplistically reminiscent of Arthur Jacob’s Jamaican Rumba. Coleman, a more expansive compositional voice in her early 50s, aims to interpret life in the American South through the medium of the classical scherzo, which Red Clay and  Mississippi Delta did in a performance that played to its bluesy tenor, got us finger-clicking (though with no indication of when to stop) and a virtuosity that took time to emotionally engage and ultimately fly. 

For the remaining Australian portion of the opening half, the mood turned distinctively pictorial, first in the filmic soundscaping that is Cheetham’s Ngarrgooroon – Woven Song. Cheetham – one of the country’s Stolen Generation which saw Aboriginal children forcibly removed for their biological families to live with non-Aboriginals – is a multi-disciplined performer and activist whose compositions encompass her beliefs in “country and connection”. While this one oozes atmosphere and mysticism, it struggles to go places musically.

The same might be said for Barton’s The Rising of Mother Country, which started off so promisingly with the composer entering from the rear and processing through the audience soulfully incanting. Once seated within the ensemble, didgeridoos at the ready (he had two, one exquisitely ornate, the other looking as if it had been through the wars and held together with gaffer tape), his role seemed disappointingly incidental. Was it that the didgeridoo is intrinsically subtler than I thought, or was the amplification inefficient? Either way, what looked like an intensity of expression was hard to actually perceive above the fullness of the surrounding ensemble. 

Despite that, the overall effect was at times mesmerising, evocatively nostalgic, if ultimately lacking in shape and directional definition. Barton continued with a further number, a song inspired by his early love of rock (I think he referenced Australian rock band AC/DC) in which he simultaneously sang, played guitar and didgeridoo. He was a natural star in this.

Safe to say that the second half, limited to one substantial work, inspired the now piano and string ensemble to a more palpable and profound belief in what they were playing. This was the Mendelssohn’s Sextet, a work that makes no apologies for its technical demands on the pianist from start to finish, but which explores exhaustive possibilities among the entirety of this rich instrumental grouping. 

As a whole, Chineke! delivered an invigorating performance, with gritty, witty interplay and capturing the high drama in music that betrays the composer’s odd flamboyant nod to Weber. It almost hit the skids in the final moments, but ultimately this Mendelssohn gem was the much-needed panacea to a strangely undistinguished first half. True quality wins out.

Ken Walton

Image: Chineke! Chamber Players & Wiliam Barton by Ryan Buchanan