The Chineke! Orchestra Presents “Spark Catchers”

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E. WALLEN: Concerto Grosso.2-4 J. WILSON: The Green Fuse.2 D. KIDANE: Dream Song.1 KENDALL: The Spark Catchers. P. HERBERT: Elegy – In Memoriam – Stephen Lawrence. J. JOSEPH: Carry That Sound / 1Roderick Williams bar; 2Tai Murray vln; 3Chi-chi Nwanoku, bs; 4Isata Kanneh-Mason, pno; Chineke! Orch.; Anthony Parnther, Kevin John Edusei, Wayne Marshall, cond. / NMS D250

The Chineke! Foundation, created in 2015, gives up-and-coming black and minority ethnic composers career opportunities and a chance to establish themselves. Of course I have no objection to any composers of any race(s) having such opportunities, but in many cases the cream rises to the top regardless of the composer’s race, particularly nowadays as opposed to 40 or 50 years ago. One such case in point is Errollyn Wallen, whose Concerto Grosso leads off this CD. She and her music have been promoted pretty well in the past few years, and her work is, to my ears, both original and consistently excellent.

Although the publicity sheet accompanying this CD claims that Wallen’s piece pays homage to Bach and Corelli, it does so in her own unique way, using driving rhythms, repeated motifs using one to four notes, and a surprising way of breaking up the meter and suddenly assigning notes or motifs to the bass or the first violin as the music hurtles along. This first movement is almost a classical counterpart of those clockwork-intricate pieces that Gene Gifford wrote for the Casa Loma Orchestra way back in the early 1930s. As noted, the violin (Tai Murray), bass (Chi-chi Nwanoku) and piano (Isata Kanneh-Mason) are major players in this work, and the second movement opens with just the violin and bass playing as a duo before the piano enters around the two-minute mark to form a piano trio. At 3:56 the string section of the orchestra tentatively enters, then suddenly the music explodes in a riot of atonal sound before the piano and violin pull it back from the precipice. When the trio continues, the piano gives the music a bit of a jazz swagger, to which the violin eventually succumbs, but not the bass. The movement then suddenly stops dead in the middle of a phrase before the third begins, opening with the solo violin playing a Baroque-type phrase, joined by the other violins and then by the whole orchestra. Again, the piano adds a syncopated kick to the proceedings as the music develops. This, however, is the shortest movement of the four, and we soon find ourselves in the last movement where the violin swaggers jazz-like in a slowish tempo while the bass grumbles underneath, then the tempo picks up as the piano and orchestra enter the picture. The music ramps up in speed, hurtling forward in a very non-Baroque sort of way as Wallen continues to play around with meter and phrasing.

James Wilson’s The Green Fuse, inspired by Dylan Thomas’ poem The force that through the green fuse drives the flower and is a minimalist piece, well constructed but of no great interest until the slow middle section, where the music slows down and violinist Murray gets intermittent solos. Unfortunately, this section, too, gets bogged down in pointless repetition.

Daniel Kidane’s Dream Song, written for the reopening of Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2018, uses the words of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech sung by baritone Roderick Williams. Williams has a fine tone and somewhat decent diction, but his voice spreads a bit under pressure. The music is in the accepted “modern-edgy” style that seems to permeate the field nowadays, but Kidane does introduce a few original touches of his own, particularly the use of flutes playing harsh, edgy figures against stiff eighth-note figures played by the trumpets. This, like Dream Song, is a live performance and not a studio recording. Personally, however, I’m not sure why Kidane chose to make this piece so full of edgy angst. I well remember the original “I have a dream” speech when Dr. King delivered it. The mood was jubilant, not tense or edgy, as he voiced the hopes and dreams of the hundreds who had gathered to hear him. It was a moment of hope and triumph.

This is followed by Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers, based on a poem by Lemn Sissay commissioned for London’s 2012 Olympics. This, too, is a sort of an edgy minimalist piece, but Kendall varies the beat placements just enough from bar to bar to hold the listener’s interest, wondering where the music will go next. She also slowly changes the tempo from fast to slow via a very gradual shift, later doubling it again with rapid clarinet figures playing around the ensemble. Philip Herbert’s Elegy – In Memoriam – Stephen Lawrence is a tribute to a man “murdered in a racist attack in London in 1999.” It is a well-written and very imaginative piece which avoids the sin of being mawkish in its expression. Its one fault is that it is too repetitive and goes on for too long.

We end with Julian Joseph’s Carry That Sound, a piece full of swirling strings and bitonal trumpet figures. The promo sheet for this CD claim that the music contains “elements of jazz and blues harmonies,” but these are so slight as to be almost negligible until the second half of the piece, and here the Chineke! Orchestra players are too stiff in rhythm to bring it off. Nonetheless, it is a fine piece, well constructed and, thankfully, having no social or political context. The ending is surprisingly original and, in fact, quite stunning.

Overall, then, a good CD of modern works by young composers, generally well played and sung by all.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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