Interview – Chineke! Britains first BME Orchestra

Chineke! is the brainchild of double-bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE (orchestral principal, soloist, frequently-recorded chamber musician and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Please describe your reaction to an invitation to play at the Proms?

We were delighted! To be asked to play at the Proms is every orchestra’s dream! More than that, I have been told that Chineke! will be the youngest orchestra ever to debut at the Proms: we will be just under 2 years old when we perform there at the end of August.

What kind of music will you be playing?

We have such an exciting programme lined up for our Proms debut! We will begin with the world premiere of a new work by British composer Hannah Kendall. Named The Spark Catchers; the piece is based on the poem of the same name by Lemn Sissay. The work will be divided into movements, each inspired by a phrase from the poem. Examples include: Tide Twists, Tidal Shifts and The Torch Bearers.

We will be showcasing the phenomenal talents of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, through two virtuosic pieces: David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody and Dvořák’s Rondo in G Minor. Sheku is a truly breath-taking performer, so if you are attending our Prom but have not seen him live before, then you have a real treat ahead of you.

Our other soloist, Jeanine De Bique, will be entertaining with Handel’s ‘Rejoice Greatly’ from the Messiah, her version of which took the internet by storm last year. It will truly want to make you rejoice!

The Orchestra will also get a chance to show off with  Rimsky Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol. Our principle players will really get to shine in that one!

An important part of Chineke!’s remit is to showcase the work of BME composers both past and present; hence the new work by Hannah Kendall. Jeanine will be performing Au penchant qui nous entraine, a song by the 18th Century composer Joseph Boulogne (more commonly known as lLe Chevalier de Saint Georges). Boulogne is one of those figures who is little remembered today, but who in his lifetime was a legend: The finest fencer on the continent, a champion boxer and a close personal friend of the Prince of Wales, he was the colonel of his own legion fighting for the new French Republic and US president John Adams described him as ‘the most accomplished man in Europe’.

But wonderful as Boulogne is, our most special moment of the night has to be the Proms premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning African American composer George Walker, who will be traveling from his home in New Jersey to see us perform his seminal piece, Lyric for Strings. It has been George’s lifelong dream to have his music played at the Proms, and, aged 95, we think it is about time he got his wish!

What is your long-term aim for your orchestra? Do you think the Proms will arise your profile and bring you a new audience?

Being majority BME Chineke! aims to encourage and give opportunities to the next generation of BME musicians, so in the long term we hope to see those young BME children who we work with through our Junior Orchestra, study music at third level, make careers for themselves in the orchestral industry, and come through to play with us as professional musicians. The most exciting thing is that this has already started to happen: a few of those who started out in our Junior Orchestra are now involved with the Chineke! Orchestra! Ultimately Chineke! strives to make a difference in the classical music industry; to help change the status quo of those seen & heard, and to change all of our perceptions. The purpose of Chineke! is not only for the benefit of BME people, because the whole industry will gain from a more diverse inclusion.

The Proms has always been about making classical music available to everyone, and this is an aim which Chineke! very much shares. As with the Proms, the diversity of our audiences is incredible, and we are sure that when we look out from the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, we will see London and the UK, in all its multicultural glory, looking back at us.

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