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SCRUTINY | Price Is Right For Chineke! In Koerner Hall

By Arthur Kaptainis on March 21, 2023

Chineke! Orchestra performs in Koerner Hall (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall)
Chineke! Orchestra performs in Koerner Hall (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Othello Suite; Stewart Goodyear: Stewart Goodyear: Callaloo — Caribbean Suite for Piano and Orchestra; Florence Price: Symphony No. 1. Koerner Hall, March 18, 2023.

Chineke! Orchestra is well known for its makeup of mostly Black musicians and its dedication to mostly Black composers. The 62 players (including a handful described in the program as “ethnically diverse”) made clear on Saturday in Koerner Hall that they can deliver good music-making to a thankful audience of all shades and ages.

Part of the mission of the London-based ensemble established in 2015 is to program works by neglected masters, although “formerly neglected” would be a better label to attach to Florence Price, 1887-1953, whose music is now heard regularly in North American concert halls.

One can understand the renewed popularity of her four-movement Symphony No. 1 of 1933. Tunes are memorable, harmonies rich, colours varied, rhythms distinctive. Most important, the forms are classical, meaning that folk elements are stabilized by a context. So it is also in Dvořák (whom the program annotator rightly cites as an influence on this score).

Under the assured baton of Andrew Grams, Chineke! made good on its qualities, inner and outer. The first climax, energized by a cymbal crash, was vivid, and winds traded the nostalgic lines of the second theme songfully. Brass chorales in the Largo were suitably burnished and the Juba Dance, a joyous scherzo in symphonic function, was highlighted (rather than overwhelmed) by exotic percussion.

The finale, a presto, built its head of steam so quickly that one regretted the relative brevity of this movement. At any rate, nothing in the performance sagged. Price deserves her new stature.

Chineke! Orchestra performs in Koerner Hall (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall)
Chineke! Orchestra performs in Koerner Hall (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall)

The program began in England with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite, a bundle drawn from incidental music written for a 1909 production of Shakespeare’s play. Conducting with elegant gestures that spoke clearly to the listeners as well as the musicians, Grams nicely characterized the five movements, including an intermezzo that had the waltzing character of something from Vienna.

Next came Stewart Goodyear’s Callaloo — Caribbean Suite for Piano and Orchestra, an exuberant 2016 mélange of calypso and other currents found in Trinidad, where Goodyear’s mother was born. Interesting that one of Canada’s outstanding Beethovenians should express himself as a composer in such a wild and freeform fashion. I found the onslaught of syncopations hard to follow and harder to like, but my opinion was in the minority, to judge by the vociferous standing ovation with which the five-movement piece was rewarded. Goodyear, of course, was the soloist. Extra points to Grams for keeping it all together.

There was a lively encore after Price: the Danse Nègre from Coleridge-Taylor’s African Suite Op. 35. This concert was the second of a North American tour that started in Ottawa and continues in New York, Boston, Worcester, MA and Ann Arbor, MI. As Chi-chi Nwanoku, double bass and artistic director, pointed out in her comments from the stage, Toronto marked the point farthest west the musicians had yet ventured.

Chineke! will probably continue to thrive, performing with the brashness of youth for sympathetic crowds. I suspect, in my old-fashioned way, that musical growth as a symphonic ensemble will depend on leadership from a permanent conductor. Grams, formerly of the Elgin Symphony outside Chicago, is a guest.

One wonders also how Chineke! will be affected by the evolving dynamics of the classical world. Orchestras are changing their ways. Will the Chineke! mission soon be accomplished? We shall see.


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Arthur Kaptainis
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