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Ethnically diverse Chineke! Orchestra on tour with stops in Boston, Worcester

Scott Haas
Ethnically diverse Chineke! Orchestra on tour with stops in Boston, Worcester
The Chineke! Orchestra. PHOTO: EDUARDUS LEE

The Chineke! Orchestra, the first majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestra in Europe, is coming to Boston on Wednesday, March 22 to perform at Jordan Hall as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. The group will also perform at Mechanics Hall in Worcester the next night as part of Music Worcester’s season. This is the England-based orchestra’s inaugural tour of North America, with other dates scheduled in Ottawa, Toronto, Ann Arbor and New York City. 

Known for its celebration of diversity in classical music, the Chineke! Orchestra “performs a mixture of standard orchestral repertoire along with the works of Black and ethnically diverse composers both past and present,” according to its website. The orchestra is the flagship ensemble of the Chineke! Foundation, created in 2015 by double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku.

Chi-chi Nwanoku, Chineke! founder and artistic director. PHOTO: CHRISTIAN SINIBALDI

As the organization’s founder and artistic director, Nwanoku combines the political and the artistic seamlessly. She was voted to the Powerlist of Britain’s 100 most influential Black people in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The Banner caught up recently with Nwanoku by phone from her home in London.

What can we expect at the Boston and Worcester performances?

You can expect to see a range of incredible musicians appear before your eyes! A wonderful range of ages, ethnicities: I challenge anyone in the audience not to see themselves represented. The Boston program is going to be Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Othello Suite,” Stewart Goodyear’s “Callaloo — A Caribbean Suite for Piano and Orchestra” and Florence Beatrice Price’s Symphony No. 1. In Worcester, the program is Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers,” Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto in G minor and Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”

What led to the creation of the Chineke! Foundation?

I am of mixed ethnicity, my father being from Nigeria and my mother being Irish, and I’ve had a 35-year career as a double bassist in classical music. Living arguably in one of the most diverse cities of the world, surrounded by every hue of color, hearing several languages each day, and then stepping into a space I called work, of orchestra rehearsals and concerts, where all of that rich diversity vanishes … After 35 years of that Caucasian atmosphere, not just on the stage, but also in the audiences and repertoire of the music being performed — it is not representative of the communities in which I live. 

The Chineke! Orchestra. PHOTO: Mark Allan

The Chineke! Orchestra features music by Black and ethnically diverse composers in every concert program. Tell us a bit about a few of your favorite composers.

The curtain-raiser in Boston is the “Othello Suite” by Coleridge, and it’s joyful and accessible. Goodyear’s piece, “Callaloo,” has some traditional Trinidadian sounds. It’s always a joy, and you may feel like getting up and dancing! And in Price’s symphony, listen out for the third movement, which is a frequently used trademark of hers: It is in the form of a “juba” dance, built on syncopated rhythms and originally brought to the United States by enslaved West Africans.

I read that the orchestra is going to perform the soundtrack of the “Black Panther” movie in May at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Yes, it will be a live concert on May 27 with the movie shown on a wide screen: the European Premiere of “Black Panther” in concert. We’re all very excited about that!

And beyond that?

In August, the orchestra will be at the Milton Keynes International Festival, where we will play the world premiere of “Forever 2023.” This year is the 250th anniversary of “Amazing Grace,” which has a complicated history that we will explore musically through that performance.

What sustains you in this work?

So much is missing. I needed to do something about it — and do something I did.

Celebrity Series, Chineke! Orchestra, music, Music Worcester