You are a prolific performer with a hugely interesting biography. Are any there defining moments or influences that you think set you on your path?
Often, classical musicians begin learning their chosen instrument at a very young age, and spend up to 15 years working towards a place at a music college or conservatoire. This was definitely not the case for me! At the age of 7 I discovered the piano at a neighbour’s house, and they taught me how to play a 12-bar blues. I returned to their house every day to hammer out the blues until they got so fed up they wheeled the piano up the road and gave it to me as a gift!
Even though music played an important part in my childhood, my main passion was athletics, and having been in serious training from a very young age, I was competing at national level in my teens. I suffered a career ending knee injury playing football aged 17 and 1/2. I was obviously devastated.
The defining moment: As is so often the way with adversity, something good came out of this disaster: my inspired music teacher in my last year at school encouraged me to take up the double bass, and after a further two years crash course in Cambridge I was offered a place at the Royal Academy of Music!
You are also passionate about music education. Can you tell us a bit about what sparked your commitment to education?
When I was growing up, working class families like mine did not have much material wealth, but we enjoyed enormous educational opportunity. It did not matter where you were from, if you worked hard enough and had enough talent, you could get the training you needed. Of course, things like institutional racism were more prevalent in those days, but if you were thick skinned and determined (and thankfully I was!), you could get the training you needed. My own educational experience, where with hard work and perseverance I was given a chance to study at the Royal Academy of Music has shaped my belief in the importance of equal access to music education.
In the intervening decades, we have made advanced equality and civil rights, we have made great strides in changing society’s attitudes towards minorities, and most of us are living longer and more comfortable lives, but in many ways we have moved backwards when it comes to opportunity. It is a sad fact that, in the arts, a kind of segregation still exists in this country, and that poor, talented Black & minority ethnic (BME) children (and our BME communities are concentrated in poorer, urban areas) do not pursue careers in the arts because of the expense. This is especially true of music, which has gone from being a core part of our education system to being viewed as a luxury. As the cost of learning music rises, it becomes the preserve of the upper and middle classes, which reinforces the perception that classical music is elitist. Restoring access to classical music and dispelling this aura of elitism are absolutely vital to the future of our industry, and are key aspects of the Chineke! Foundation’s work.
The creation of the Chineke! Foundation is a remarkable achievement. Could you tell us a little about your motivations for setting it up and any particular experiences since it was established?
In the early years of my career, I became used to the near complete absence of other BME musicians in the orchestras and ensembles I played with. I never thought anything of it, and as time went on it seemed almost normal to me. But in recent years I have had something of an awakening.
A decade ago I was asked to do a newspaper interview about an upcoming concert programme, and the chief executive of my orchestra at the time, Marshall Marcus, called me up and said that the paper was particularly interested in a piece we were playing by a lesser-known 18th Century composer, Joseph Boulogne (more commonly known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges). I took some persuading, but in the end he convinced me to look into it, and what I discovered completely blew me away.
Saint-Georges wasn’t just a composer, he was a phenomenon. The finest fencer on the continent, a champion boxer, Marie Antoinette’s music teacher and a close personal friend of the Prince of Wales, he was the colonel of his own legion fighting for the new French Republic. US president John Adams even described him as ‘the most accomplished man in Europe’.
But of particular poignance to me, and the reason why Marshall had encouraged me to look into his life, was that he had achieved all of these things as a free black man living in an age of slavery: The son of a French aristocrat and a Guadeloupe slave, he was known as ‘The Black Mozart’, and he was a virtuosic violinist, a pioneer abolitionist and the most famous black figure of his era.
For me, finding Saint-Georges was a bittersweet moment: the more I learned about him, the more excited I became. At the same time, I had this terrible feeling of shame; shame that I had not given even a second thought to the idea that there might be somebody of my ethnicity composing and performing classical music of an extraordinarily high standard in previous centuries. I had simply accepted the canon as the status quo, and it set me to thinking about how other musicians from ethnic minority backgrounds perceived themselves.
Then in 2014 I got to see the Kinshasa Orchestra performing at the Royal Festival Hall. I was glancing around at people’s faces and wondering why they were looking so incredulously at this black orchestra, as though it was a novelty. I looked around at the wonderfully diverse audience and loved the atmosphere, but it was seeing this look of incredulity which really spurred me into action. I left that concert knowing that I had to do something.
Since then it has been nonstop! Thankfully I have had incredible support from a wide variety of people and organisations, particularly the Southbank Centre who hosted us for our first two concerts. The surprising and heartening thing, however, has been the sheer number of fantastic BME musicians and music students who I have met during this journey. Their dedication and skill has driven me on, and given Chineke! renewed purpose.
We talk a lot at LoveMusicPass about the benefits of experiencing live performance as a listener. As a performer, is there anything you would like to say about the impact live performance can have?
There really is nothing like a live performance! I think many people forget that sound is not the only important thing in classical music. You can have a massive sound system with any number of speakers and high quality recordings, but you will still be missing part of the performance, because what is happening, living and breathing visually on the stage is just as important as the audio! The interaction and communication between the players and the conductor is a visual feast, and the audience really responds to expressive physical performances.
Seeing and hearing a world-class soloist or orchestra in action is an incredible experience, and if you ask many musicians about the most important formative musical moments of their life, they will invariably talk about particular live performances. As musicians, we have to be aware of this, because in each and every concert we play, there may be a potential young Dudamel or du Pre (or Sheku!) sitting somewhere in the audience. Knowing this, we have the responsibility of inspiring them not just through hearing the music, but through our performance of it.
Is there anything that you would say to somebody attending a Chineke! performance, for whom it is their first classical experience?
Leave your preconceptions at the door! Classical music does not have to be dull and fusty, you do not have to know the names of the composers, pieces and the movements, you do not need to worry about clapping in the wrong place (when in doubt, wait for someone else to start!). Our audiences are not comprised of aficionados and regular concertgoers; they are lively and diverse just like the ordinary, everyday crowds you see in our major cities. Come along and see it for yourself, because the Chineke! Orchestra is like nothing you have ever experienced before…literally!
Chi-chi Nwanoku MBE