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How Britain’s Chineke! is changing classical music

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Chi-chi Nwanoku, whose mother was Irish and father Nigerian, always felt a struggle to articulate what it meant to be a Black classical musician in Britain.

“Most of our orchestras are completely white, [and] there’s nothing to talk about regarding equity,” she says. 

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Many people see classical music as static – the same works played mostly by people of European descent. With Chineke! Orchestra, Chi-chi Nwanoku has created a new model, also restoring classical works by Black composers to the repertoire.

Her observations and inspiration led her to start Chineke!, Europe’s first majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestra. Since 2015, when the first show was held, Chineke! has been redefining narratives around classical music – who plays it, which composers fill repertoires, and what audiences come to listen.

On Sept. 1, Chineke! will perform in London’s Royal Albert Hall as part of the prestigious BBC Proms. In addition to performing pieces by Beethoven and Haydn, Chineke! will present a lesser-known piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a 19th-century Black British composer. 

Samson Diamond, a violinist from South Africa, recalls that first 2015 performance in Queen Elizabeth Hall. “As we walked in, it was a standing ovation from the audience, which is rather rare, especially in the U.K. or Europe,” he says. “There was a sense of validation that this is more than just having people of color on stage, but an orchestra that was needed for that time, just at the right time, for people to feel welcomed in the concert hall.”

Chi-chi Nwanoku pauses before she ascends the stairs to the performance hall of the New England Conservatory.

It is spring, and she wants to let the “spine-tingling” moment sink in. Eight years have led to this moment for the founder and artistic director of Chineke!, Europe’s first majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestra. She is bringing African American composer Florence Price home.

Price had been one of few Black students at the conservatory during the height of the Jim Crow era. It’s only recently that her work – a stunning array of more than 300 classical pieces – has been rediscovered and featured by symphony orchestras, thanks in part to the efforts of Chineke!

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Many people see classical music as static – the same works played mostly by people of European descent. With Chineke! Orchestra, Chi-chi Nwanoku has created a new model, also restoring classical works by Black composers to the repertoire.

“To think that this woman, regardless of how skilled or talented she was, she was never going to have a good life, a good career in the thing that she was so proficient and brilliant at,” says Ms. Nwanoku in a practice room at Jordan Hall. She asked a colleague to photograph her on the same steps where Price stood for a photo in 1906, just hours before they would bring the composer’s 1932 Symphony No. 1 to life. “She just kept producing more and more beautiful music in spite of all of that.”

Ms. Nwanoku, an award-winning principal double bassist, has appeared in hundreds of concert halls over her three-decade career in classical music. 

Christian Sinibaldi

Chi-chi Nwanoku is the founder and artistic director of Chineke! On Sept. 1, the orchestra will perform in London’s Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms summer music festival. Besides performing pieces by Beethoven and Haydn, Chineke! will also play a piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a 19th-century Black British composer.

Through the Chineke! Foundation, she has filled rosters with musicians who, like Ms. Nwanoku, can claim similar lived experiences of being “the only one” to create a space where they harmonize to become one of many. She founded a junior orchestra to support the development of young musicians. Since 2015, Chineke! has been redefining narratives around classical music – who plays it, which composers fill repertoires, and what audiences come to listen.

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