Described as the “UK’s only Black and ethnically diverse orchestra”, Chineke! last night offered a Prom programme imaginatively conceived by the orchestra’s inspirational founder, Chi-chi Nwanoku. All three composers represented had Black roots; all three had considerable talent but suffered neglect.
As a Black woman, Florence Price (1887–1953) had a double hurdle to surmount. In recent years several of her compositions have been heard, but the vast majority of her oeuvre – well over 300 works – remains unpublished and unknown. The Piano Concerto in One Movement of 1934 came to light a decade ago but was published only this year. With its rolling arpeggios and opulent harmonies, the obvious model for the first movement is Rachmaninov, but neither the spiritual-inspired slow section, nor the juba (a dance performed by plantation slaves) of the final section could be mistaken for the Russian composer.
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, at 19 still a student and one of the younger siblings of the better-known members of that extraordinarily talented family, proved an eloquent advocate for the piece with her sensitive yet alert playing. The concerto may not plumb the emotional depths like Rachmaninov, but it’s skilfully written and its spirited conclusion brings a smile to the face.
The Nigerian-born Fela Sowande established himself in England in the 1930s, where he was an organist in Holborn and jammed with Fats Waller. His African Suite of 1944 betrays no enthusiasm for modernists such as Britten or Stravinsky, recalling rather the nostalgic vein of Dvorak. Both its melodiousness and its West African rhythms are infectious: I saw more than one silver head bobbing appreciatively to the music. Again it’s not a profound score, but it’s an accomplished and enjoyable one. Conductor Kalena Bovell captured the varied moods of the suite, not least the delicacy and tenderness of the fourth movement, ‘Onipe’.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born in 1875 to a medical doctor from Sierra Leone and a white English mother, was recognised by his older contemporaries Stanford, Parry and Sullivan as a precociously talented student. Nor was he neglected after his death: his choral cantata trilogy, Song of Hiawatha, once rivalled Handel’s Messiah in popularity, being performed at the Albert Hall for two weeks every year from 1928 until the outbreak of the Second World War, complete with feathered headdresses and wigwams. The cantata’s rarely heard these days, but the melting lyricism and succulent harmonies in this performance of the overture enabled one to understand just why it pulled in the crowds in those austere prewar years.
Coleridge-Taylor was still a student when he wrote his Symphony in A minor. The Brahmsian slow movement is the most derivative, but paradoxically also the most accomplished of the four. The finale is the most ambitious, though the grand statement it promises never quite materialises.
A beautifully played programme of minor revelations rather than masterpieces, then, but I’d gladly hear it again.