Fresh off the heels of a well-received European tour and days before a much-anticipated closing concert at the Lucerne Music Festival, the UK-based Chineke! Orchestra rendered a delightful double-header program September 4 at the 2022 BBC Proms under the leadership of conductor Kevin John Edusei, concertmistress Kelly Hall-Tompkins, and founder (and principal bassist) Chi-Chi Nwanoku.
Featuring the human voice in two large works (George Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lilacs for soprano and orchestra and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 for SATB soloists, choir, and orchestra), it was in great part a recreation of Chineke!’s intended 2020 Proms debut, where they were intended to perform the last in a complete set of Beethoven symphony performances, and yet looked even further: to a vision of excellence when majority-minority orchestras such as Chineke! are offered years of funding, space, and time to grow.
Lilacs, a four-movement setting of Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, hushed the packed crowd at Royal Albert Hall immediately with the first movement’s supple winds-and-strings textures. The 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World-winning Nicole Cabell served as soprano soloist in both the Walker and Beethoven; her voice was suave and flexible, with unerring accuracy of pitch. Similarly eloquent in the Walker’s orchestral interludes was principal oboist Titus Underwood, who serves the same position in the Nashville Symphony year-round.
While each movement of the Walker ended in mystery, Edusei guided the orchestra with a deft hand through many moods, from the combative brass fanfares of the second movement to the percussion-led final sounds of the fourth that reminded one of rain outside. It was, in a word, masterful.
Equally so was the take on Beethoven’s famous Ninth. The composer was unsparing with dynamic indications through the whole work; rapid crescendos and sudden dynamic changes abound, and Hall-Tompkins served as an expressive and highly able leader through it all. The first movement was brisk, with clear direction that carried through to the second movement’s Scherzo sections. Principal timpanist (both with Chineke! and the US’ National Symphony Orchestra) Jauvon Gilliam was note-perfect and offered thunderous responses that filled the hall admirably, while principal bassoonist Joshua Elmore, who fills the same role at the Fort Worth Symphony, impressed in the virtuosic Trio.
The third movement showed off Chineke!’s expansive string sound and also the faith the section put into their concertmistress during the opening, each player looking up in an unforgettable moment of chamber music. And who could forget the shock of the audience when bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green first opened his mouth, having just moved to the front of the stage moments before with the quartet, and astounded with that tone? Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, tenor Zwakele Tshabalala, and the aforementioned Nicole Cabell soon joined him in the vocal bliss, each with expansive, unforced sounds, while the newly formed Chineke! Voices sang with maturity and blend that belied the fact that they had sung their first concert only two months earlier. The choral finale and subsequent orchestral tutti capped off the show to raucous applause, with soloists and conductor called back to the stage to bow until the hall lights came up.