First things first: It’s pronounced “Chin-eh-kay.” In the Igbo language, it refers to a creator god, but it’s also used as an exclamation meaning “wonderful.” And the exclamation mark is important, it turns out. It might have been silent when artistic director Chi-chi Nwanoku said Chineke! Orchestra’s name aloud when she greeted the audience, but that exclamation mark resounded in every note and gesture that the orchestra played from the stage of Jordan Hall Wednesday evening.
The orchestra, established in 2015, was in Boston as a stop on its first-ever North American tour. Nwanoku, a double bassist with an impressive resume of British orchestral positions, founded the Chineke! Foundation and its namesake orchestra with the worthy mission of providing career opportunities for Black and other “ethnically diverse” musicians in Europe. To name a few accomplishments, the orchestra has played multiple BBC Proms concerts and was featured in the first post-renovations concert at the Southbank Center’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Chineke! umbrella organization has also grown to include a junior orchestra, a vocal ensemble, and a record label in association with Decca.
But Nwanoku was beaming with enthusiasm to be playing at Jordan, in an appearance presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. Addressing the audience from her position at the front of the double bass section, she described the “spine-tingling” feeling she experienced while walking up the same steps that Florence Price would have ascended during her time as a student at New England Conservatory more than a century ago. Throughout the evening, the 62-member orchestra played with superb musicianship and a sense of unbridled, authentic joy which I’ve found only shines through when everyone on stage is both excited to be there and has a personal commitment to creating something amazing.
For a local comparison, I’ve seen this from the conductorless A Far Cry, and I’ve also seen it from the Handel and Haydn Society when the concert is led by musicians. Chineke! did play with a conductor, the energetic and precise Andrew Grams, but perhaps this vibrance also has something to do with operating under less of a top-down hierarchy than is typical in the classical music world, where artistic leadership and conducting often go hand in hand. The excitement was contagious. Jordan Hall was maybe only a little over half full, but I’ve heard less noise from a sold-out house.
In addition to creating career opportunities for historically underrepresented musicians, Chineke! also champions music of Black and other underrepresented composers. Wednesday’s Jordan Hall concert featured three Black composers, two of the past and one of the present; Price, the late Romantic composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Canadian composer-pianist Stewart Goodyear, who played the solo in his own piece “Callaloo: A Caribbean Suite.”
Coleridge-Taylor’s “Othello” suite opened the concert with a blast of energy. Within moments, two little girls in the balcony were out of their seats, dancing along to the fittingly titled “Children’s Intermezzo.” One of them waved her arms along with Gabriel Dias’s sinuous trumpet solo in the “Willow Song.”
Even the word “callaloo” — a popular Caribbean dish with many regional variants — sounds joyful, and joyful it was. A musical outpouring of love for Caribbean musical traditions inspired by time the composer spent in his mother’s native Trinidad, the first fast movement of “Callaloo” was driving but unrushed, as if the composer encouraged the audience to savor the moment. Relaxed calypso rhythms alternated with flights of Lisztian virtuosity in the second movement before the sunset-hued “Afterglow” allowed the soloist to take a breather. The cadenza and finale plunged right into carnival madness. Chords in the piano’s high range flashed like sequins. The three-person percussion section went to town on a wild drumming feature near the end and made it seem criminal to be sitting down.
Despite being the first work by a Black woman to be played by a major orchestra, Florence Price’s 1932 Symphony No. 1 may have been all but forgotten had it not been for the recent upswell of interest in her life and work, which has led to more large ensembles spending the time and resources necessary to perform and record her music. This symphony may not be a staple of the repertoire yet, but Chineke! played it like it was. It sounded truly alive: no longer a treasure from the vaults in need of a dusting off, but a living, evolving entity. The pentatonic melody of the first movement seemed to breathe, here accelerating to a peak and there slowing down as the full orchestration flowered. The sylvan Largo movement featured several enchanting woodwind solos. I’d happily hear them play it again, but really, I’d hear them play anything. Next time they cross the pond, they deserve nothing less than a full house.
At NEC’s Jordan Hall, March 22. www.celebrityseries.org