by Anthony R. Green
As a frequent traveler, it is always a pleasure when my agenda happens to take me to the UK in October. While I spent the bulk of the month in Sweden, I spent the last week in London and Oxford, where I basqued in some of this area's rich Black cultural offerings, some of which are year-round institutions, some coincidental, and others specially curated for October - Black History and Culture month in the UK.
On the penultimate day of my trip, I took a bus from London and spent the day in Oxford. My first time there, I was charmed by the beauty, size, and ease of this town. While there, I visited some museums and galleries, saw a poster of an upcoming concert featuring Sheku Kanneh-Mason, spent some time with a wonderful friend, and saw a Chineke! chamber music concert, with a pre-concert talk by founder Chi-Chi Nwanoku. Castle of our Skins had the pleasure of hosting her during our Black in Europe and Beyond residency at Brandeis University, where she gave a masterclass, an inspiring lecture, and participated in an eye-opening panel discussion.
The program showcased 5 works, 2 of which were composed by artists of color. The opening work, Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders (arr. by Franz Hasenoehrl in 1954), has a curious instrumentation of violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and contrabass. A reduction (in instrumentation AND duration) of Strauss's op. 28 Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Chineke played this work with joie de vivre and reckless abandon, which this merry work welcomes. It was followed by a 2-movement Sonata in G major by Luigi Boccherini, which Chineke! realized with cello and contrabass rather than a full continuo. The textures and richness that Ashok Klouda (cello) and Chi-Chi Nwanoku (contrabass) achieved was heavenly and pleasantly surprising. They were perfectly in tune with each other in every sense of the phrase, and their sense of musicality in their interpretation added a new life to Boccherini for me.
The following work was a commissioned septet titled NNENNA by Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen. Already an admirer of her works, it was such a joy to hear this fascinating, gripping, complex work played expertly by Chineke! musicians. One important characteristic of this work is a keen sense of timing and flow, as this piece has a complex journey that ranges from dense chords to soloistic, minimal textures. It concludes with a rousing quotation of the popular highlife song Sweet Mother by Nigerian/Cameroonian singer-songwriter Prince Nico Mbarga. Coincidentally, my first official social justice music commissioned work ALSO quotes this song, but in the very beginning rather than the end!
Following the Wallen was Mozart's Oboe Quartet in F major, which was played with a lovely tone, but the piece is rather flat. Perhaps the piece is okay, but followed by such a moving, inspired work as the Wallen, this Mozart light work did not stand much of a chance. The evening concluded with one of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's masterpieces, his Op. 2 Nonet in F minor, for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, contrabass, and piano. Composed at the age of 19 in 1894, this stunning romantic beast covers such a vast emotional range, taking the audience on a long and much-needed emotional and musical journey. Coleridge-Taylor, at such a young age, already had a command in balance, both in terms of structure and in melody, maintaining clarity amongst the nine soloists of this chamber work. Chineke! shone brightly in their interpretation, with special mention to guest pianist Rebeca Omordia. I personally loved the concert, and longed for a program of just Wallen and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor! There was not an empty seat in the chapel of New College, where the concert was held, and Chineke! received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end (with lots of audible cheers from myself and others). I am looking forward to attending more Chineke! chamber and orchestral concerts when I can!
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