Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Nottingham Trent University Hall
May 4 2022
Review: William Ruff
Music of elegance and diversity from a unique ensemble
It’s not often that a single double bass plays such an important part in a classical music event but without Chi-chi Nwanoku and her instrument Chineke! wouldn’t exist. She founded the Chineke! Orchestra in 2015 and created something unique: Europe’s very first professional majority Black and ethnically diverse orchestra, formed to support the careers of musicians from such backgrounds. In 2017 the offshoot Chamber Ensemble was created, five of whom were at the NTU Hall on Wednesday.
Their programme was as enterprising as the group’s existence. With Chi-chi as part of the group it’s perhaps not surprising that all three items on the menu featured the double bass: one very famous and substantial, the other two less weighty and certainly much more unusual.
They started with the third String Quartet by the splendidly named Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born in Guadeloupe in 1745, the illegitimate son of a slave and her white plantation owner. Brought to France by his father, St-Georges showed the world how multi-talented he was, chiefly as a soldier and as a composer, pouring out vast numbers of symphonies, chamber music, operas and much else. If his third quartet is anything to go by, what his music lacks in profundity it makes up in tunefulness, good humour and tasteful craftsmanship. The Chineke! Ensemble gave as elegant a performance as this music can ever have received.
Next came the music of Florence Price, a composer born in Little Rock Arkansas and recently rediscovered as the first black American woman to achieve success in the field of classical music. The Ensemble played two of her Five Folksongs in Counterpoint: ‘Drink to Me with Thine Own Eyes’ and ‘Shortnin’ Bread’, attractive arrangements from a set which combines folk songs and spirituals from the Black American tradition with references to composers such as Ravel and Debussy to create something highly individual.
For the concert’s major work, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet the string players were joined by pianist Beatrice Nicholas. Their performance was full of high spirits, the brilliant passages of the opening movement effectively contrasted with its more mysterious moments. The slow movement captured the spirit of a convivial serenade; the scherzo sparkled; the fourth movement became a wide-ranging commentary on Schubert’s famous ‘Trout’ song and the finale wrapped up their performance in buoyant, exhilarating style.
Their encore continued the ‘Trout’ theme. The Ensemble kept its title and composer a secret but here was Schubert’s theme given the boogie-woogie treatment with lots of instrumental fireworks plus whistling and vocalising from the players. It was all great fun and ensured that everyone left with a smile on their face.
Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Julian Gil Rodriguez, violin
Jane Atkins, viola
Ashok Klouda, cello
Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, double bass
Beatrice Nicholas, piano