The founder of Chineke! Orchestra, Chi-chi Nwanoku, speaks to Keith Bruce ahead of its Edinburgh Festival debut.
It is easy to put a kilt on the story of the Chineke! Orchestra, the ensemble of black and ethnically diverse musicians that is “championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music”.
The orchestra was conceived in the catalytic presence of Glaswegian Gillian Moore, Director of Music at London’s Southbank, as founder Chi-chi Nwanoku relates in the well-rehearsed tale of her “lightbulb moment”.
The board of the organisation includes the former chief executive of the RSNO, Krishna Thiagarajan, and one of its most recognisable regular musicians, and social media advocates, is RSNO timpanist Paul Philbert. When it made its live re-appearance at the Royal Festival Hall at the end of May, Jane Atkins of the Scottish Ensemble was leading the violas and RSNO cor anglais Henry Clay was principal oboe. The Munich-based conductor Kevin John Edusei, who has impressed with the BBC SSO, the SCO and the RSNO in recent years, came to UK attention via his Chineke! appearances on the podium.
Now the orchestra, and its associated Chamber Ensemble, will make their Edinburgh Festival debuts, in concerts that include music by Judith Weir, and with mezzo Andrea Baker, who is now based in Scotland, as soloist.
But back to that “lightbulb moment”. Nwanoku had a 30-year career as an orchestral double bassist, notably with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, when she began to be invited to sit on the boards of organisations like the Association of British Orchestras and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.
“That was where I heard the word ‘diversity’ being used around the table,” she says. “It wasn’t something I’d heard being discussed in the orchestra, but then Ed Vaizey, the culture minister at the time, asked me why he only ever saw me as a person of colour on the concert hall stage.
“And I was often the only person of colour, not just on stage but in the entire auditorium. And that included the composers of the music we played, and the management and the backstage staff.”
Around the same time, Nwanoku attended a Southbank concert by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra of the Congo and was struck by the absence of black British musicians in the filming of a documentary about the visiting Africans. There was obviously a job of work to be done to raise the profile of players like herself.
“On the Monday I phoned every musical institution and told people what I was going to do. I began contacting all the principals of all the music academies and asking about their alumni. I wrote to soloist friends asking if they had noticed other musicians of colour in the orchestras they’d played with.
“Don’t assume I’ll know them!” I said. “One person would lead me to another, and we began putting a junior orchestra together as well. Exactly a year later that Junior Orchestra performed in the afternoon in the Clore Ballroom in the Royal Festival Hall and you couldn’t move for the number of people who came to hear them. Two hours later the Chineke! Orchestra, the professional orchestra, walked out on the Queen Elizabeth Hall platform to a sold-out audience.”
That was in 2015, and the profile of Chineke! has been growing impressively in the years since. Already an MBE, Nwanoku was awarded the OBE in 2017, the year the Chineke! Orchestra made its debut at the BBC Proms. In 2019 the Royal Philharmonic Society introduced a new category to its prestigious awards, Game-Changer, and Chineke! was the first recipient. In the citation, the Wigmore Hall’s John Gilhooley said: “Chineke! came from nowhere, and it is now almost impossible to imagine a world without it.”
“The energy and the mixture of people on the stage directly affects who is in the audience,” says Nwanoku. “Chineke! is not just for black and ethnically-diverse people, it is for the industry to benefit. Any initiative that is inclusive produces results, across any business and all walks of life.
“Classical music looked like the last bastion where ethnically-diverse people were excluded. When we did our first Prom in 2017, the television broadcast was the most viewed in Prom history. Of the 75 people on the stage that night, seven were white, and 95 per cent of them had never set foot on that platform before.
“In the pre-pandemic days when we could share music stands, there were never two people from the same background sharing a stand in the Chineke! Orchestra. I love that.”
There’s another plaid swatch in the kilted version of the Chineke! story in the pre-Festival life of EIF Head of Music Andrew Moore. He can be glimpsed in a documentary about a pre-Chineke! Chi-chi Nwanoku, being given a double bass lesson at her London home. Some years later he has booked her orchestra to visit Edinburgh for what will be its Scottish debut.
“I think EIF were waiting to see how we were going to do, as a lot of people did. They did want to see that we were worth our salt. But we are pushing against open doors now.”
Significantly, the Festival invitation came with proposals as to the programme the orchestra would play, and with whom. Moore not only suggested the major work in the concert but also its conductor, and soloist. Judith Weir’s woman.life.song was written for Jessye Norman and sets words by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2000, and was reprised by Norman at the London Proms the same year.
“EIF suggested that piece to us,” says Nwanoku. “It’s the first time a Festival or venue has suggested what we play, but I’ve loved the music of Judith Weir since I played a piece by her with the BBC Singers and just the double bass.”
It is, however, Chineke! philosophy to play a work by a composer of relative ethnicity in every programme, so the orchestra has commissioned Ayanna Witter-Johnson to write a short new work to precede the Weir.
“She’s a really talented black British composer. We recently premiered a piece at St Paul’s Cathedral that was a sort of requiem for the climate and she wrote the first movement, the Creation.”
Afro-American conductor William Eddins, conductor emeritus of Canada’s Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 2005 to 2017, is also new to Chineke!.
“It is a great opportunity to meet another conductor, says Nwanoku. Our conductors are as much a part of our musical success as the orchestra.”
As Chineke!’s founder explains, it has been very important “optically and politically” that an ethnically diverse orchestra was not being directed from the podium by a white man. That said, there are advanced plans for a very well-known conductor who fits that description to work with the orchestra on a major work that was scheduled for last year’s cancelled Proms. The huge orchestral and choral forces required mean it is still postponed and Nwanoku has her fingers crossed for 2022.
This year the orchestra is returning to the Royal Albert Hall, on August 24, and will be working with its first woman conductor, Kalena Bovell, who is also American and conducted Chineke! in November. The programme includes composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price, with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason playing the latter’s Piano Concerto in One Movement.
As part of Edinburgh International Festival 2021, Chineke! Chamber Ensemble is at Old College Quad on August 16 playing Vaughan Williams and Coleridge Taylor. William Eddins conducts Chineke! Orchestra at Edinburgh Academy Junior School on August 17.