The visit of the renowned Chineke! Orchestra to Cranleigh School on Friday night represented a major coup; this orchestra are in demand on the world stage, and brought with them two international soloists in Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE (the founder of the orchestra), and Dame Evelyn Glennie, one of the most accomplished and influential percussionists of all time, who has performed previously at Cranleigh in 2001. These two soloists performed the world premiere of a new concerto ‘Across the Divide’ for double bass and percussion by composer Jill Jarman, who was present in the audience.

The Chineke! Foundation was created in 2015 to provide outstanding career opportunities to established and up-and-coming black and ethnically diverse classical musicians in the UK and Europe. The organisation aims to be a catalyst for change, realising existing diversity targets within the industry by increasing the representation of black and ethnically diverse musicians in British and European orchestras. The Foundation’s flagship ensemble, the Chineke! Orchestra, comprises exceptional musicians from across the continent brought together several times a year. As Europe’s first majority-black and ethnically diverse orchestra, Chineke! performs standard orchestral repertoire alongside the works of composers past and present who share that heritage.

Their concert at Cranleigh opened with the world premiere of Jill Jarman’s Concerto for double bass and percussion, which seeks to address the divide between perceptions of gender within music, and between perceptions of Art music, and with the aim to open new audiences to the classical genre. It explores our need to communicate across perceived divides; something that was apparent from the very first exchange between the two soloists. This lengthy, unaccompanied musical conversation created an extraordinary sound-world. The subtle timbres of a myriad of percussion instruments combined with extended techniques on the double bass to create a new language that was compelling; the conversation intensifying and becoming more tangled as the orchestra joined in, and the two international soloists demonstrating complete mastery of their respective instruments. The poignant second movement, ‘Exchange’, describes the human experience of loss, something common to all regardless of culture, gender or race. Jarman’s ability to explore an original orchestral sound-world whilst tapping deep into the well of human emotion, and with searing clarity of expression was particularly notable. The final movement fused cultural differences through the rhythms of Flamenco and traditional Nigerian beats, and allowed the vibrant approach of this youthful orchestra full expression, under the baton of Odaline de la Martinez.

After a spirited reading of Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, the second half began with James B. Wilson’s Free-man; a response to the Bristol bus boycott of 1963. Wilson is another contemporary British composer with a powerful voice; a storyteller at heart, and one who is alive to the rich textural, timbral and harmonic possibilities of acoustic instruments. It was this piece that highlighted the individual abilities of several players in the orchestra; the flute and horn soloists being particularly accomplished. The programme finished with Fela Sowande’s substantial African Suite from 1955, a fusion of Western classical and Nigerian Art music. The lilting rhythms of African dances and lullabies are presented in this attractive piece through the lens of the Western classical music tradition, but the spirit of Africa is strong. There was a palpable sense of an orchestra playing music that they were extremely comfortable with, celebrating their own heritage and completely at one with this repertoire. This piece deserves a wider audience, which it will get as the orchestra repeats this concert at St George’s, Bristol and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in the next week. 

That Cranleigh School can lay claim to hosting an orchestral concert of this calibre is notable, even more so that it included a world-premiere, and all this aligns with the wider school commitment to celebrate cultural, racial and ethnic diversity in all its forms. This was a wonderful concert and a once-in-a-generation experience for our pupils. These ambitious cultural celebrations are the ones that they will remember for the rest of their lives.