Chineke! Orchestra

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The Chineke! Orchestra has a motto, “Championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music,” and the stated goal of its sponsoring Chineke! Foundation is “to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the U.K. and Europe.” In its inaugural performance, the orchestra’s 62 musicians represented 31 different nationalities.
The Chineke! Orchestra and Foundation were launched in 2015, both the brainchild of double bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku. The name is Igbo for “God creates.” Nwanoku was a founding member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, has taught at the Royal College of Music, and has been well known in the U.K. as a broadcaster, putting together programs like one for the BBC Radio 4 network on the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. She was aware of the work of the U.S.-based Sphinx Foundation, which has worked to train and to increase opportunities for young musicians of color. Her moment of revelation came when she attended a concert by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra at London’s Southbank Centre. “One thing I noticed at that concert,” Nwanoku told the London Independent, “was the incredulity on the faces of the philanthropists and politicians in the audience, looking at a stage filled primarily with Black people.”
The Chineke! Foundation sponsors not only the Chineke! Orchestra but also the Chineke! Ensemble, a chamber ensemble made up of the orchestra’s principal musicians, and the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, which is aimed at providing training and encouragement to talented young musicians. Yet the performing organizations have proven to have more than an educational or career-development function. The Orchestra has attracted support from the likes of the BBC, the Association of British Orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Society, and Arts Council England from the beginning. It gave its debut concert in September of 2015 at Queen Elizabeth Hall and was appointed an Associate Orchestra at London’s Southbank Centre in the spring of the following year, returning to perform there at the Royal Festival Hall.
The year 2017 saw several festival dates, the orchestra’s first international appearance (in Ghent, Belgium), and performances at the Royal Albert Hall in its first BBC Proms concert. That year, the Chineke! Orchestra was signed to the Signum label and released its debut album, featuring music by Sibelius (Finlandia, Op. 26, which had been the Biafran national anthem) and Dvořák. Many of its concerts have featured music by composers of African descent, including several world premieres by Hannah Kendall and Roderick Williams, among others. In 2020, the Chineke! Orchestra released The Spark Catchers on the NMC label. ~ James Manheim