Wednesday 25 August 2021

Chineke! Orchestra returns to the BBC Proms with a programme of discovery, four late-Romantic works by composers of African ancestry

Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, Kalena Bovell, Chineke! Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Mark Allan)
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, Kalena Bovell, Chineke! Orchestra - BBC Proms
(Photo BBC / Mark Allan)

Coleridge Taylor, Sowande, Price; Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, Chineke! Orchestra, Kalena Bovell; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 August 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Three composers of African ancestry, three Proms premieres, an evening of engaging discovery from Chineke!

Chineke! Orchestra was back at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 24 August 2021 for its fourth visit. Kalena Bovell conducted a programme of music by composers of African ancestry, with the English composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor's Overture to 'The Song of Hiawatha' and Symphony No. 1, Nigerian composer Fela Sowande's African Suite and American composer Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement (with soloist Jeneba Kanneh-Mason).

With music ranging in date from 1896 to 1944, there was something of an alternative history of early 20th century classical music here, both in terms of the way the composers' work has been either forgotten or marginalised (after its premiere in 1934 the music for Price's concerto simply disappeared for 80 years) and in terms of the way each composer wrote in a late-Romantic style which for much of the later 20th century was deeply unfashionable.

Kalena Bovell, Chineke! Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Mark Allan)
Kalena Bovell, Chineke! Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Mark Allan)

So we had three Proms premieres (only Coleridge Taylor's overture had been played at the Proms before, way back in 1959), in wonderfully engaging and sophisticated performances from Chineke! Orchestra under Kalena Bovell's inspired direction. The players seemed to radiate the sheer joy of being on the Royal Albert Hall stage, in fact overflowing off it into the stalls, as well as the fact that the programme chimed in with the orchestra's ethos of being a Black and ethnically diverse orchestra. Repeatedly during the evening the joy and enthusiasm of the players seemed to be saying to us, listen to this, isn't it fantastic. And, indeed, fantastic it was with much of the music of a quality which made you wonder why we had not heard it before.

We began with something of a known quantity, Samuel Coleridge Taylor's Overture to 'The Song of Hiawatha' even if the composer's Hiawatha cantata trilogy, The Song of Hiawatha, has not recovered anything like its stupendous early popularity, when from 1924 to the Second World War the complete cantata trilogy would be staged annually at the Royal Albert Hall, often conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Hiawatha's Wedding Feast premiered at the Royal College of Music in 1898 with the cantata trilogy,  The Song of Hiawatha, having its first complete performance in 1900 at the Royal Albert Hall. The overture was written for the 1899 Norwich Festival and uses themes from cantata.

When listening to Coleridge Taylor's music it is fascinating to hear how he creates such a distinctive personal voice, yet if you contrast his music with that of fellow students at the Royal College of Music it can seem relatively conservative. That we know it is Coleridge Taylor comes partly from the way he owes a debt to Dvorak (whom he admired) and the way Dvorak wove Czech melodic and rhythmic material into Germanic symphonic structure seems to come out in the way Coleridge Taylor uses his melodic material. But there is another voice too, when listening both the overture and the symphony, I also got whiffs of the music of the Scottish late-Romantic composer Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916), slightly Coleridge Taylor's senior but MacCunn also studied at the Royal College of Music and went on to teach there. We don't hear enough of the music being produced at this period; there were more styles and voices than those which have become dominant in history.

The overture, almost closer to a tone poem in style, received a fine performance with the players giving the music a lovely surface sheen yet combining this with engaging rhythmic energy.

Nigerian composer Fela Sowande (1905-1987) studied in London in the 1930s, combining composition, organ playing, directing choirs with performing as a jazz musician and band-leader. He would move back to Nigeria in the 1950s, working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. In his music he deliberately combined West African melodies and rhythms with Western classical styles. His African Suite for string orchestra and harp was written in 1944 and whilst it belongs to the strong Western classical tradition of music for string orchestra, Sowande's use of African music (including two songs by Ghanaian composer Ephaim Amu (1899-1995)) created a very special feel to the music.

The first movement 'Joyful Day' was just that, a delightful tune treated with amazing rhythmic diversity. Sowande's is an engaging voice and one which manages to be melodically appealing yet not immediately obvious. 'Nostalgia' proved to be a lush Elgar-like serenade whilst 'Lament' was a touching movement with a lovely sweet solo from orchestra leader Zara Benyounes. This initial melody was treated by Sowande to a series of imaginative transformations. 'Onipe' combined delicate sounds and transparent textures with engaging rhythms. The finale, 'Akinla' was lively and joyful, with the rhythms again bubbling over.  There were a couple of moments when I wondered whether Sowande's fertile imagination might have got the better of him and the music might have benefitted from being slightly more concise. But the way he combined melodically memorable material with rhythmic energy and invention, all within the confines of a Western classical string serenade made me wonder why the piece is not a staple in all orchestra's programmes.

We ended the first half with Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement. Price was the soloist at the work's premiere in 1934, the year after her Symphony No. 1 was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conductor Frederick Stock, the first full-scale orchestral composition and the first symphony by a black woman to be performed by a major American orchestra. Whilst events were not untainted by racism, this was a time of success for Price and she wrote a number of other large-scale works.

The composer's manuscript for the concerto has disappeared. The work seemed to disappear from concert stages after the 1930s and modern performances are based on a reconstruction made in 2010 based on the original orchestral parts. The score was only finally published in 2011. Whilst the title is Piano Concerto in One Movement, it is clearly in three distinct sections, virtually separate movements. The soloist Jeneba Kanneh-Mason is 19 years old and holds the Victoria Robey Scholarship at the Royal College of Music. She was a keyboard category finalist in the 2018 BBC Young Musician.

The orchestra for the concert was somewhat smaller than that used by Coleridge Taylor for his two works in the programme. The spirits of Grieg and Rachmaninov seemed to hover over the orchestral introduction but Price firmly stamped her mark on the genre by having this lead to a big piano cadenza. Throughout the work, Price often shifted focus to the soloist having the piano perform alone or with few instruments. The thematic material seemed African-American in inspiration, yet Price's rich orchestrations linked back to both Rachmaninov and Dvorak, and Kanneh-Mason proved an engaging soloist, deftly dealing with the many purple passages for the piano. The slow movement was again richly romantic and rather melancholy, with a long imaginative passage where the soloist simply duetted with a solo oboe, creating something rather memorable. The finale was based on the juba, a dance with African roots originally performed by enslaved people on southern US plantations. The spirit here was pure Scott Joplin, and the performance delightfully infectious.

The second half was devoted to Coleridge Taylor's Symphony in A minor. The work's genesis has something in common with that of William Walton's Symphony No. 1 (1934/35). Both works were premiered with just three movements and their composers struggled with the final movement, leaving commentators to feel that the finale does not quite successfully round off the whole.

The work's first three movements were premiered at the Royal College of Music in 1896 where Coleridge Taylor was a student of Stanford, Gustav Holst played the trombone in the orchestra and RVW was in the audience. The fourth movement followed in 1900, after some struggle, but Coleridge Taylor would revise the work again in 1901 and was never quite satisfied. The darkly romantic opening was striking and engaging, combining melodic felicity with rhythmic inventiveness, and we were a long way from the Brahmsian model of Coleridge Taylor's teacher, Stanford. The slow movement, called 'Lament' but not really lamenting, was graceful with Dvorak-like richness of texture and complexity in the orchestrations. The Scherzo was full of character, but the lively rhythms combined with rather dark drama, contrasting with a graceful trio. The final movement was darker, more dramatic and with a greater emotional depth than the earlier three, and there was grandeur here too. Yet the ending, when it came, was quite surprising.

Florence Price: Piano Concerto - Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, Kalena Bovell, Chineke! Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Mark Allan)
Florence Price: Piano Concerto - Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, Kalena Bovell, Chineke! Orchestra - BBC Proms
(Photo BBC / Mark Allan)

This was a programme of largely new and unfamiliar music played with spirit, style and conviction by Chineke! Orchestra under Panamanian-American conductor Kalena Bovell, making her BBC Proms debut. There was nothing dutiful about these performances, we were really engaged by the music and by the way the players invested in it. If I have a comment, it is that the combination of four late-Romantic works was perhaps a bit rich and that a little bit of grit in the oyster would not have come amiss. Yet conductor Kalena Bovell found real character and personality in all the music, and the way she danced through the finales of both the Sowande and the Price ensured that we went home humming and tapping our feet.

The concert is on BBC Sounds, and will be broadcast on BBC 4 on Thursday 26 August 2021.

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