Chineke! Orchestra, a medium-sized contingent (10-8-6-6-4 strings plus winds, brass, and percussion) of young professionals resident in the United Kingdom, part of the namesake foundation, gives 40 concerts a year there, “to provide career opportunities for young Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians.” This visit to Boston, the orchestra’s first since the Covid shutdown, won cheers from a crowd that included a handsome titer of racial and ethnic diversity three-quarters filling Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Applause after each and every movement reflected their enthusiasm.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite, op. 79 (1911), opened the concert with a splash of orchestral and harmonic color, in five movements — a fast fortissimo “Dance” in E minor, a waltzlike “Children’s Intermezzo” in D minor, “Funeral March” in A minor with plenty of augmented-sixth harmony, “The Willow Song” in G minor with a fine trumpet solo, and a “Military March” in dotted-rhythm C major, with a 3/4 middle section. All of these were bracingly short, as polished as any of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, and refreshing, like the pops numbers of Eric Coates with a tropical tinge.
Stewart Goodyear, a Canadian pianist born in 1978, appeared next, playing his own Callaloo: “a Caribbean suite for piano and orchestra.” The subtitle was as understated as the concerto was spectacular: “a blend of Calypso and Lisztian pianism,” according to the composer’s terse and elegantly descriptive liner notes. Of the five movements: “Panorama,” “Mento,” “Afterglow,” “Cadenza,” and “Soca,” only the first and last involved the larger ensemble, fast, furious, brilliant, and full of striking harmonic color. Goodyear’s virtuoso pianism flavored by movie jazz as well, reminding me not so much of Gershwin but of Morton Gould or Jerome Moross, or maybe Earl Wild, and with a hard edge that signified a new work of major importance. “Panorama” began with an explosive glissando attack, settling down to serious melody, plus a lot of low-register keyboard grumbling with tambourine accompaniment; the composer writes, “I wrote my own three themes, but brought in elements that would be familiar to Calypso lovers,” and this writer heard echoes of “Underneath the Bamboo Tree.” The second movement, with smaller accompaniment (strings, horns), was a piano toccata on a few notes. The third movement included overlapping metric patterns, well sustained by a Caribbean percussion background within the low-register strings and woodwinds, and a well-articulated fading G minor glowing at last in G major. The solo cadenza started small and became enormous, with handfuls of close-position triads grabbed here and there and flung about in Milhaud-like polytonal fashion, interspersed with racing fingerwork in every register; the orchestra players watched its progress with startled smiles. It led directly to the last movement, described as a “huge finale of Carnival.” This movement was perhaps too long, with too many glissandi, but wild and loud, always exciting, a serious piano-orchestra contest, building to big climaxes (there was a terrific cadenza for percussion ensemble) and culminating in the orchestra’s shout near the end. The audience loved it and called the pianist-composer back for more bows. Will the big, bright Callaloo become available on CD?
After the intermission we braced for a much-talked-about work, the Symphony in E Minor by Florence Price, first performed in 1933 and occasionally revived since, in homage to a recovered African American Renaissance. Comparisons are usually made with Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony in the same key, for good enough reasons: the incorporation of African folksong, the brass chorale style in the slow movement. There is a lot to admire in this spacious, romantic work. The ponderous first movement features two main themes, the first in E minor, the second in G major, both warmly pentatonic, with a thoroughly experienced harmonic idiom deriving from the late 19th-century French orbit as well as Czech, and a good feeling for sonata structure. The second movement, according to the program notes, “incorporates a sure-footed harmonically rich ten-part brass chorus,” but I think maybe club-footed, because of the naive ostinato beat of bass drum and timpani in every bar; the harmony is certainly rich and even mature, and the sigh at the very end, two notes for solo cello, is a master stroke. The third movement, a “Juba Dance” in fast 2/4 in lieu of a scherzo, mostly hung around two harmonies, A minor and C major — the pentatonic scheme once more. This joyful movement and the Finale, in a whirling 12/8 E minor, were more successful than the first two, in part because shorter and the proportions are better. As a first symphony influenced by Dvořák, this is a worthy attempt that is more than mere imitation, pointing down the road to a perhaps more economic symphonic style.
Bright, muscular, and ambitious, with a solid professional sound, the Chineke! Orchestra played with rapt attention to their conductor, Andrew Grams. His directed pop-orchestra-style, demonstrative, choreographic, all over the place, and furiously imitative of details and registers, especially shining in the Price symphony; in the finale he crouched and sometimes his baton reached his knees. But his results were always good, and the audience agreed. They encored with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ecstatic Danse Nègre. We look forward to the Chineke! return.