Chineke!/Bovell review – young orchestra continue to make strong case for neglected repertoire

It’s a long time since I heard any of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha cantata trilogy in a concert; probably not, in fact, since as a schoolboy I played in a performance of the first part, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. But Chineke! have been doing their best for Coleridge-Taylor’s music since the orchestra was formed in 2015. Their debut concert was launched with his Ballade, and their latest prom, conducted by Kalena Bovell, began with the Overture to “The Song of Hiawatha”.

Strictly speaking, the overture isn’t part of the trilogy, though it is mostly built around themes from the first of the cantatas. But here it never quite had the curtain-raising impact it might have done, perhaps because Bovell’s performance lacked the necessary punch and incisiveness, or because the absurdly hyperbolic programme notes raised expectations that the music could not possibly fulfil.

There was much more conviction in the orchestra’s performance of the Coleridge-Taylor work that ended the concert – his Symphony No 1 in A minor, most of which was written and performed (with Holst in the orchestra and Vaughan Williams in the audience) in 1896, when the composer was still a student at the Royal College of Music. Given that Coleridge-Taylor was studying at the RCM with Stanford, he did well to avoid the pervasive influence of Brahms; there’s much more of Dvořák in the cut of the symphony’s themes and the buoyancy of its textures, with just a hint of Liszt in some of the darker writhing passages in the ultimately triumphant finale, which he eventually completed in 1901.

Like the symphony, the other two works in the programme were receiving their first Proms performances. The African Suite by Fela Sowande, who was born in Nigeria but made his career as an organist, choirmaster and jazz musician in London, is slight but charming, while Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement, in which the soloist was Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, begins as anguished Rachmaninov and ends like unbuttoned Gershwin. And after that poised, stylish performance, Kanneh-Mason’s encore brought more Coleridge-Taylor, a beautifully shaped and coloured account of his B minor Intermezzo, a reminder of how much of his music there is still to be explored.

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