Thursday , April 18 2024
Chineke! Orchestra in U.S. debut at Lincoln Center, March 20, 2023
Photo credit: Oren Hope

Concert Review (NYC): Chineke! Orchestra in U.S. Debut with Anthony McGill – Mozart, Florence Price, Carlos Simon

Double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku CBE saw a need: to build career opportunities in classical music for Black and ethnically diverse musicians. So in 2015 she started the Chineke! Foundation. Its most prominent project, the Chineke! Orchestra, gives dozens of concerts each year in the UK, and has been touring Europe since 2019.

Chineke! made its rousing U.S. debut last night to a very enthusiastic crowd at David Geffen Hall. The program featured a striking amuse-bouche by contemporary composer Carlos Simon; Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, with the stellar Anthony McGill as soloist; and the Symphony No. 1 in E minor by Florence Price (1887-1953).

The suddenly ubiquitous Florence Price

Price is a once-obscure African American composer from the first half of the 20th century. Her work has been popping up everywhere in the past few years as organizations work overtime to give the music of Black classical composers long-overdue recognition. Any orchestra can play this music, but this performance by an ethnically diverse orchestra seemed to have special meaning.

It is a symphony of both heft and high spirits, and it bears a distinctive compositional imprint. The peppy “Juba Dance” movement, which serves as a scherzo, gets perhaps the most attention, maybe unsurprisingly, being based in Africa-rooted folk dances that were popular among enslaved Americans. But it’s the long first movement (“Allegro ma non troppo”) that carries the most weight. Conductor Andrew Grams coaxed out its narrative drama with a firm hand. Built on a folksy pentatonic scale and scaling great expressive heights, it’s an intense and rollocking ride.

To my ear, the second movement wanders a bit. But its distinctive brass chorale makes it unusual in the symphonic literature and a pleasure to hear, especially in the extravagantly remodeled David Geffen Hall with its superior acoustics.

The “Juba Dance” flew by, snappy and with a big sound; if anything, I wished it were a little longer. And the orchestra displayed fine, vibrant ensemble work in the Finale, with dizzyingly fast figures in the string section.

Chineke! and Anthony McGill do Mozart right

The Mozart provided great stylistic contrast. Together with the Price, and the modernistic alarums and churn of Simon’s brief, exciting “Fate Now Conquers,” it showed the orchestra’s versatility and broad sensibility. Agile clarinetist Anthony McGill reflected rock-star energy, feeding off the audience’s enthusiasm. His fluid playing glowed, ascended, went down like butter. He brought a lilting jazziness to the first movement that reminded me a little of Benny Goodman’s classical recordings.

The audience applauded vigorously after each movement (a “new” tradition I’d love to see expand). And there was much to applaud in the slow second movement, which carries some of Mozart’s most audaciously beautiful melodies. The languid sweep of Grams’s tempo suggested lush vistas – as romantic as Mozart gets. Executing very fine dynamics, Chineke! and McGill created a simply heavenly sound.

The finale was sunny, flowing, crisp without rushing. Here Grams found a judicious fusion of grandiosity and lightheartedness. And McGill’s virtuosity and spirit continued to amaze.

Find out more about Chineke!, including its upcoming U.S. concerts this week, at its website. The Chineke! Foundation also runs a youth orchestra and other programs.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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