Cambridge Music Festival to host black and minority ethnic orchestra that went viral

PUBLISHED: 11:00 19 October 2017 | UPDATED: 11:00 19 October 2017

Chineke!

Chineke!

Supplied by Creative Warehouse on behalf of Cambridge Music Festival

We suggest you put November 22 in your diaries. For it is possible historians will look back at it as a pivotal moment in our cultural history.

Chineke!Chineke!

On this day Cambridge audiences will have their expectations about classical music shattered in a few short hours. For the ancient seat of classical music, King’s College chapel, will host a top quality orchestra, but one with a key difference: most players are Black and Minority Ethnic (BME).

What’s more they will perform music by black composers such as Joseph Boulogne (the ‘black Mozart’) and Errollyn Wallen – as well as the actual Mozart, and Tchaikovsky.

The concert is the final concert of Cambridge Music Festival, the boutique festival that brings some of the world’s top musicians to Cambridge every November.

There has been a real buzz about the orchestra, called Chineke!, in the last few days: the video of its recent, and first, performance at the BBC Proms in London has gone viral – suddenly. The number of views it has received has exploded from two million to nearly 10 million. As Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, founder of the orchestra, said last night: “If I were Beyonce I might not think twice about getting 10 million hits, but we are just a small classical orchestra. Something is in the air and it’s very exciting!”

Chineke! was founded in 2015 and is Europe’s first professional orchestra of black and minority ethnic musicians – not only in the UK, but in the whole of Europe. The impact is being felt. In their first ever concert on the continent last week, in Ghent, Belgium, the ‘sold-out’ audience gave them a standing ovation.

“A couple even came up to me and told me they had travelled from Kentucky, USA especially to see us! It was astonishing,” says Nwanoku.

In her campaign to change perceptions, she has her work cut out. Research by Christina Scharff at King’s College London shows the narrowness of representation running throughout the classical music industry. Of 629 orchestral players, “only 11 (1.7%) could be identified to be from a Black and Minority Ethnic background,” Scharff reports.

“Young black people see nobody who looks like them playing classical music,” explains Nwanoku, “so they assume it’s not for them.” To counter this the Chineke! Foundation also runs a junior orchestra. And already alumni from the juniors have started feeding into the senior orchestra.

“Young players tell me how incredible it is on the first day to have that sensation of feeling at home, something they had never felt before in an orchestra.” Chineke! now has 40 nationalities among its members, and includes white players too.

But not all audiences are ready to have their perceptions altered. In the lead up to a recent concert at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, some of the regular concert-goers told the concert hall they would not be coming to the Chineke! concert due to the ethnicities of the orchestra.

“I was very sorry that some people actively decided not to attend. It’s quite shocking, but confirms the cultural divide that still exists among us, and further focuses Chineke! to pursue its mission.” says Nwanoku.

No wonder String Magazine recently referred to the classical music scene as “sometimes-sclerotic”.

In the end, the incident had a good outcome. The word spread and the audience on the night looked very different to the usual white audience. “Most people in the audience were Black and Minority Ethnic (BME), and included some of our Chineke! juniors and their friends,” tells Nwanoku. “And the audience loved the music”.

Chineke! is also tackling another curse of our times: social class division. One of the white cellists in the orchestra recently wrote to thank Nwanoku: “Being a white person from a working class background, I often feel socially isolated in the classical music industry. And playing with Chineke! I’ve never felt more at home in an orchestra before, even though I thought I wouldn’t. I really think that Chineke! is, indirectly, doing an awful lot for divisions of social class.” She went on: “I don’t know how to begin to thank you for having me on the latest Chineke! project. To say it was an honour is the understatement of the century. It was absolutely one of the highlights of my career so far.”

Nwanoku is hugely looking forward to bringing Chineke! to King’s College Chapel. “It’s spectacular that Justin Lee has programmed us to play there. The building has the weight of history and we will certainly astonish many concert goers!”

The Guardian said that the Chineke! concert was “arguably one of the most important concerts that the Proms have ever hosted”.

We suggest you come along to witness what may be one of the most important concerts that Cambridge has hosted in 
recent times.

Chineke! Orchestra

King’s College Chapel,

Wednesday November 22, 7.30pm

Tickets £17 - £40 from Cambridge Music Festival.

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