Chineke! Orchestra & Chorus – Spark Catchers


Title: Spark Catchers
Artist: Chineke! Orchestra & Chorus
Label: NMC
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: January 17, 2020


Royal Academy of Music professor and double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku has a laudable mission: championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music. Through her Chineke! Foundation, Nwanoku nurtures new generations of talent by commissioning works and supporting music education programs including a youth orchestra. Her flagship group, the Chineke! Orchestra, was founded in 2015 and is comprised of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians working in the UK and Europe. The orchestra recently won the inaugural Royal Philharmonic Society Gamechanger Award for filling the stage with BME artists, drawing a far more diverse audience to concert halls, and “restoring BME composers past and present to their rightful place amongst those we regularly revere.” These achievements are showcased on the Chineke! Orchestra’s latest album, Spark Catchers. Featuring works by six of the UK’s leading BME composers, the performances (except where otherwise noted) are led by African American conductor Anthony Parnther, music director of the Southeast Symphony in Los Angeles and the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.

The album opens with Concerto Grosso by Errollyn Wallen, a prominent composer of operas and orchestral works who was awarded the MBE for services to music in 2007. Drawing from the compositional style of Baroque composers such as Bach and Corelli, the four movement work is a tour de force for Chicago-born violinist Tai Murray, British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, and Nwanoku on double bass. Though the first and third movements hew more closely to the Baroque theme, Wallen introduces jazzier elements in the second and fourth movements such as swinging dance rhythms and an improvisatory bass line. In support of the trio, the string orchestra gives a fierce yet nuanced reading of the score. 

James Wilson’s The Green Fuse, premiered by the Chineke! Orchestra in 2017, is a wonderfully evocative piece for strings inspired by Dylan Thomas’s poem, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Wilson explores this force of nature as well as its duality, posing the question, “What is this energy that makes creativity and joy possible and yet becomes life’s destroyer?” Slowing unfolding like the genesis of the universe, the “green fuse” burns brighter for a time as the violins burst forth from the chordal structure, before returning to the tranquil ebb and flow of existence.

In his work Elegy (In Memoriam Stephen Lawrence), composer Philip Herbert pays tribute to a black British teenager of Jamaican descent who was murdered in 1993 during a racially motivated attack while he stood waiting for a bus. Scored for string orchestra, the piece features lush harmonies and a prominent cello part. Herbert’s tribute is also a statement on current conditions in the UK: “There is a need to place a higher value on the strength that comes from diverse peoples living together in Britain.”

One of the highlights of the disc is Daniel Kidane’s Dream Song for baritone, chorus and orchestra. Commissioned by the Chineke! Foundation for the reopening of Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2018, the live recording of the world premiere performance is featured on this disc. Though Kidane describes the work as a celebratory piece, it is far more somber than joyful. Over an ensemble fraught with tension in the strings and lower brass and an ominously tolling bell, soloist Roderick Williams OBE weaves in text from Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech. As he sings, “With this faith we will be able to transform the discords into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” we experience the ongoing struggle to honor Dr. King’s vision and his dream of equality. Yet the discord remains and seeps into the soul as the chorus concludes on the final phrase, “let freedom ring.” This is a powerful work that deserves to be widely performed.

London native Hannah Kendall’s Spark Catchers was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and premiered by the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms in 2017. Kendall describes this live performance from the world premiere, conducted by Kevin John Edusei, as “full of kinetic energy and driving rhythms.” The work draws on a poem by Ethiopian-born poet Lemn Sissay that pays tribute to the women and girls who worked at a match factory in the 1880s and had to catch any stray sparks that might start fires. Scored for full orchestra, the work reflects lives fraught with danger and anxiety, convincingly portrayed in this performance.

The disc concludes on an upbeat note with Carry That Sound by noted jazz pianist and composer Julian Joseph. Conducted by Wayne Marshall, this challenging work for full orchestra weaves together jazz and blues harmonies in a delightful manner, with many solos offered to the woodwinds, brass and timpani.

Spark Catchers is a true gem, brimming over with exciting new music from both young and established composers. I sincerely hope this recording inspires programmers and conductors to look beyond the standard works often performed during Black History Month, and recognize the vast potential for diverse programming throughout the rest of the year. Very highly recommended!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss