“I could count on my hand the amount of people of colour I’d played with in the past 35 years… That’s not good.”
Fresh off the phone from BBC Radio 4, Chi-chi Nwanoku walked me through her mission to champion change and celebrate diversity in the Classical music scene. From performers at the forefront to those behind the scenes and composers who rarely get the recognition they deserve. This journey has resulted in the most ethnically diverse orchestra in the UK, the Chineke! Orchestra.
Classical music is typically seen as a white middle-class genre with a lack in diversity that is obvious, and why? Is it a sector of music that is only appreciated by a certain type of person?
Chi-chi thinks not, “There are people of colour in all parts of the industry – composers, practitioners, historians – who are all overlooked. There’s almost an automatic reflex where people assume the standards won’t be high enough, but why is that the case? And who’s deciding what the standard is and who gets to meet it? This lack of representation isn’t down to there not being talent out there.”
I wonder how was she able to pull together these musicians to form an orchestra when she herself had only played with a handful of other people of colour during her career as a cellist
“I went on a hunt! I asked soloists I’d played with before and conservatoires, searched through the recently graduated and then when I’d found musicians I looked into their history to make sure they did meet our standards, because they had to – to prove assumptions wrong.
“Our first concert at St Elizabeth’s was completely sold out. There were people queuing outside trying to get in and it was the most ethnically diverse audience I’d ever played to. When we played at Southbank Centre, half the people were those you’d expect to see at a classical concert – the other half was London. There were some people there who had never been to Southbank before, let alone the concert hall… but there they were! Listening to a whole evening of Beethoven and Bach, standing to clap at the end of each piece.”
The point which is made, again and again, is that diverse players create diverse audiences and it is hard for people to feel accepted, or in fact invited, into a sector that only celebrates a certain demographic.
“It’s so important to play to your own community – in one fell swoop we changed people’s perceptions about Classical music; not just who plays it, but also who can enjoy it. By diversifying the players, we are bringing classical music to a new audience. The empowerment that can give to people is really important. There are some who have gone to listen to classical music regardless of who’s playing.”
Chi-chi ends explaining that Chineke! Orchestra will be playing on St George’s Day, April 23 at St George’s Bristol concert hall with pieces by Joseph Boulogne (Chevalier de Saint George) who was a mixed race composer, born 10 years before Mozart and a formidable influencer to the genre, laughing that the symmetry “almost blew our minds when we were programming”.
To book tickets for Chineke! Orchestra, April 23 at St George’s Bristol, go to www.stgeorgesbristol.co.uk or call 0845 40 24 001.