It had been 439 days, we were told, since the Royal Festival Hall last opened its doors to a public audience. Whatever the disappointments of such a long period of closure, the mood as the players of Chineke! Orchestra took to the stage was celebratory. That this ensemble was chosen to be first back shows how far it has come in its six-year existence. There were cheers as Chineke!’s founder Chi-chi Nwanoku was presented with Making Music’s Sir Charles Groves prize, and more of them at the mention of that organisation’s campaign for amateur choirs to be allowed to rehearse together again.
There is indeed always campaigning to be done in the music world – but at least Chineke!’s work as an amplifier for composers of colour is bearing fruit. This concert began with two works written last year. The first, a UK premiere, was Fate Now Conquers by Carlos Simon, a breezy, motoring overture with the harmonies of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 as its jumping-off point. Desmond Neysmith made something lovely of the cello solo at its centre.
The second, Remnants – streamed in a Chineke! concert last autumn but now being performed in front of an audience for the first time – was inspired by something that happened right outside the Southbank Centre: the image of Patrick Hutchinson, grim-faced and determined, carrying a counterprotester to safety during last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. James B Wilson’s music is essentially a frame for words delivered by the poet Yomi Sode – a brief, portentous prelude, an even briefer ending hinting at catharsis, and between them some drones supporting Sode’s words of anger and reflection.
It’s a powerfully direct work. Perhaps only Chineke! would programme it right next to Dvořák’s beloved, super-romantic Cello Concerto, and that’s greatly to this ensemble’s credit. In the Dvořák, the soloist was Sheku Kanneh-Mason, his playing expansive and lyrical for the most part yet especially striking in the moments of greatest tenderness; the ending was beautifully handled. Socially distanced layouts are no friend to nuanced orchestral balance, but the conductor, Kevin John Edusei, kept the orchestra supportive even if the blending was a little blunt, and they sounded vibrant in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1911 Othello Suite, a work full of easy, swashbuckling tunefulness from a composer finally getting the recognition he deserves.