Chi-chi Nwanoku's trailblazing orchestra has kickstarted the careers of artists including Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and is providing a platform for brilliant musicians from the BME community who aren't getting the performance opportunities they deserve elsewhere
It was, Simon Rattle said, ‘not just an exciting idea but a profoundly necessary one’. The kind of idea, he went on, ‘which could deepen and enrich classical music in the UK for generations’. As it turned out, he was spot on. Yet back in September 2015, when this idea first surfaced, it was regarded not just as radical but, in some quarters, unwelcome.
Founder Chi-chi Nwanoku
For decades Chi-chi Nwanoku had been one of the most outstanding orchestral players in London – and not just because, as the British-born daughter of a Nigerian father and Irish mother, she was usually the only black face on the stage. A founder-member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, she invested her playing with such virtuosic energy that you sometimes felt as if the whole ensemble was being propelled from the bass line. It’s no surprise to learn that in her schooldays she was a 100m sprinter who competed at national level.
By 2015, Nwanoku had a new ambition: to found Europe’s first professional orchestra of black and minority ethnic (BME) players. Its name would be Chineke! – not a pun on her own moniker, but an exclamation meaning ‘wonderful’ or ‘divine’ in the language of Nigerian Igbo tribe. She arranged a meeting with the very few other BME musicians then established in the orchestral world.
Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of the Chineke! Orchestra
Reactions from other musicians
One was Paul Philbert, now timpanist of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, but then just back in London after 14 years in the Malaysian Philharmonic. He was astonished by what happened at the meeting. ‘People starting talking about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Chevalier de Saint-Georges,’ he recalls. ‘I’d had 15 years of intensive music education, at the Purcell School and then Trinity College of Music, yet I had never heard of these composers! I realised that the contribution of black classical musicians had been written out of the history books. I was so inspired by Chi-chi that at the end I went up to her and said “Whatever you want me to do for this project, I will do”.’
That was the reaction of most, but not all, of the BME musicians that Nwanoku approached. ‘Three or four black players who were enjoying very good careers decided they wouldn’t join that first concert,’ she says. ‘Maybe they didn’t want to be seen making any sort of statement. Maybe they felt they personally didn’t need a BME orchestra.’
The American viola player Lena Fankhauser, another founder member who is based in Vienna and plays regularly with top Austrian and German orchestras, understands that sentiment but doesn’t agree with it. ‘The question of “needing” is relative,’ she says. ‘Just because some already established players didn’t need Chineke! doesn’t mean it wasn’t needed. For me it was more about BME musicians getting their voices heard. There’s no quick fix to the lack of ethnic diversity in orchestras, but Chineke! addressed the issue directly, and for that reason it was a project that needed to happen.’
Making it happen, and setting up a 30-strong junior Chineke! orchestra to train teenagers alongside the 60-strong senior one, required a huge amount of fundraising from Nwanoku. Nearly five years on, it still does. To send the orchestra on a tour of the US and Canada this April, for instance – a tour which, like every other aspect of musical life, had to be called off – she raised $600,000. ‘She is the godmother of this orchestra, in every sense,’ Philbert laughs. ‘She doesn’t take no for an answer.’
And after four seasons of ferociously hard work, resulting in concerts that have won increasingly enthusiastic reviews from critics initially suspicious that the orchestra was some sort of gimmick, Nwanoku is happy to take pride in her achievement. ‘Chineke! is in such a different place now,’ she says. ‘It’s really contending at the highest level.’ That’s true.
Its recordings have been much praised; the latest, Spark Catchers on the NMC label, collects together some of the fine works it has commissioned from young BME composers. It is increasingly in demand for high-profile festivals and it has successfully nurtured a new generation of talented BME musicians by giving them orchestral experience alongside top professionals.
None has risen faster than young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Alongside his equally talented siblings – violinist Braimah and pianist Isata – he cut his teeth in Chineke! concerts. ‘We feel privileged to have been involved with Chineke! since the very first fundraising concert in which we played Schubert’s Trout Quintet with Chi-chi and Stephen Upshaw,’ he recalls. ‘It was inspiring to be thrust into a professional environment, surrounded by so many black musicians.’
Well, five years has nearly passed. Does she think Chineke! has made a difference in those contentious areas? ‘If you talk to any orchestras now, they say “oh yes, we are completely open to having as much diversity as possible”, but in the same sentence they always add “as long as it’s of good enough standard”, and I feel that has become a bit of a rote response,’ she says. ‘People are linking diversity with mediocrity too easily.’
She believes that instrumental teachers often have lower expectations for BME pupils from their first lessons onwards, and that this carries on through school and college. She cites the example of one BME wind player, at a famous London music conservatoire, who was given just one opportunity to play in the college orchestra during her four years there. ‘If that person was good enough to get into this great institution in the first place, why weren’t they given orchestral experience? I don’t understand it. So, she is getting all her orchestral experience from Chineke!, either in the junior or senior orchestra. Of course, it’s terrifying for me to have people who aren’t polished professionals playing in the senior orchestra, but I feel I have to take the risk to give them experience.’
There’s much still to be done…
She admits that famous orchestras can’t change their ethnic make-up overnight, but wishes that more of them were doing what English National Opera is doing: instituting a scheme that offers five BME string players places in the orchestra. ‘I know there are mixed feelings about it, because existing players feel threatened,’ Nwanoku says. ‘But nobody’s job is being taken away and the young players are getting experience.’
Nwanoku also believes that screened auditions, where the panel has no idea of the identity of the applicant, should be the way of deciding all orchestral vacancies. ‘If you don’t have screened auditions, the colour of someone’s skin becomes a factor,’ she contends. ‘I hear enough horror stories from my American colleagues to know that’s the case. And it’s not enough to do screened auditions just on the first round, because the old habits – of giving the job to a mate – simply kick in on the second round.’
What else could be done to ensure that BME musicians get a fairer deal right through the orchestral process? According to Nwanoku, the Arts Council and other funding bodies could be more pro-active. ‘I read an article by Nicholas Serota [Arts Council England’s chairman] in which he expressed disappointment that Britain’s orchestras are looking much the same as they have always done – that is, overwhelmingly white. Well, I would like to see more money put into ensuring BME players get the opportunities, the experience and the training they need.’
And she says she knows where the money could come from. ‘I recently had a meeting with the managers of a big arts organisation at which they admitted that the board, the management and the orchestra was still completely white. And they also admitted that they had been docked a small percentage of their grant because they hadn’t diversified enough. Well, if organisations are getting their grants docked for that reason, the money should go instead to ensembles that have diversity at the forefront of their mission.’
But even if there’s still a long way to go before Britain’s classical-music ensembles properly reflect the multi-ethnic make-up of the general population, the pioneer members of Chineke! have already had a galvanising effect as role models and mentors. ‘Black and ethnic minority people are so often portrayed in popular culture as criminals, dealers, gangsters and general no-gooders,’ Philbert says. ‘It’s still necessary to counter that impression. Recently I played with Opera North in a schools performance where the pupils were about 50 per cent BME. I felt that lots of them were staring at me. It was so rare for them to see anybody who looks like them represented in a respectable profession.’
The biggest irony, says Nwanoku, is that she has been called ‘racist’ for setting up an orchestra only for certain skin colours. ‘I have been playing for 35 years in orchestras where I am the only black player, and now I’m accused of being racist because I have organised something that gives people like me a chance,’ she says incredulously. ‘And by the way, we do invite white people. I get young white musicians writing to me saying they wished they were black because they would love to join Chineke! I reply: Really? You want to give up all your white privileges? Well, come on then. You don’t have to be black. You just have to share our philosophy. And you have to be damn good at your instrument, like I’ve had to be to play in white orchestras all these years.’
Words by Richard Morrison. This article appears in the August 2020 issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale now.