Friday, March 8, 2019 Chineke! on Representation in the Classical Space

Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE and Linton Stephens

Chineke! on Representation in the Classical Space

In many ways, the Chineke! Orchestra is both simple and difficult to describe. Founded in 2015, the group’s rallying cry is that it’s “Europe’s first majority black and multi-ethnic orchestra” — as in, almost all the musicians in the (up to) 75-person ensemble are people of color. This extraordinary effort to explicitly provide career opportunities to black and multi-ethnic classical musicians (and build a world-class orchestra in the process) has attracted some major attention, not just in Europe, but internationally. The Chineke! Orchestra has already begun to build bridges to people and communities who otherwise feel like outsiders in the classical world.

Members of Chineke! came to the WQXR studio this February to perform and talk with us more about the kind of philosophy that goes into building this group. Below is an edited version of the interview I conducted with with Chineke! founder and double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, and bassoonist Linton Stephens.

How do members get evaluated to play in Chineke!?

Jacqui: My understanding is that the full orchestra has a rotating number of members. How do you evaluate who can play in the orchestra?

Chi-chi: I stalked everyone individually.

Linton [to Chi-chi]: You’d done your research into who each person was, who are they playing with, what are they playing. Chi-chi found that the main thing was [that] this has to be a beacon for how high a standard that black and mixed ethnicity people can get to.

Chi-chi: People always put “mediocrity” in the same sentence as “diversity.” I want people to stop saying diversity is mediocrity. They say, “An orchestra full of people of ethnicity? Well, what are the standards like?” They make the immediate assumption that it’s not going to be good enough.

Linton: They make the assumption that it’s going to be based on race instead of standards, and it’s quite the opposite.

Chi-chi: Let us be judged by our music. When we walk on stage, we all walk on as one — we have already tuned carefully backstage. We’re one of the only orchestras that walk [on] with the conductor, because we share a philosophy [about performance standards, equality, and diversity]. When we walk on, we don’t tune up as part of the performance. The performance begins the moment you walk on stage. The first thing our audiences hear is music. It’s okay for the conductor and soloist to have their ego moments, but not before we have presented as a unified group. Our philosophy to first appear as one is something we share.

Chi-chi:I have white people writing to me saying “Chi-chi, I wish I was black.” And I write back and say “Really? Why?” And they say “Because I want to play in the Chineke! orchestra.”

You don’t have to be black [to play with Chineke!] — you have to share our philosophy and be good enough to be in the orchestra!

Linton: Some people think it’s an exclusive black and mixed-ethnicity group, but it’s not that at all. Every professional orchestra I go into, I am usually the only black person in there — if not one of two. I’ve never been in an orchestra aside from Chineke! where there’s more than three black people or mixed ethnicity.

It’s important that, if a white person comes into our orchestra, they’ll be like, “Hey, this is what it’s like when [nonwhite people] come into our orchestra as well.” They have that realization. Sometimes that’s all you need for them to get it and say, “Oh, this is how it feels.” And you’ve already opened a door of understanding.

Jacqui: So there are white people in Chineke!?

Chi-chi: Out of the 75 people in the BBC Proms concert, there were seven white faces. We are like a mirror image of the industry in quality, but we’re doing much better as far as diversity is concerned. Also, every single section within the orchestra is diverse. And the white people in the orchestra at our Prom were Australian, Kazakh, French, Bulgarian, white Aborigine, and English. After that [BBC Proms] concert, some of the white players wrote letters to me that said, “I’ve never felt so welcomed into any orchestra in my professional career.”

Linton: I think it’s because we’re not just there to make the music, we’re there to make a statement as well. When you play with other people, it transcends. It sounds a bit la-dee-dah, but it does transcend. You have this shared goal.

In an era of diversity initiatives, why does Chineke! need to exist? (Hint: it’s not a pipeline problem)

Jacqui: What do you want people to know about your work that isn’t obvious?

Chi-chi: I think we’re all discovering more about it as we go along, but more than anything, there can’t be any more scientific experiments or tests to find out, just to prove to the world, how important music education is. We all know that any community without culture is a broken community, and I think all of our communities are going that way because of music and the arts being cut out of children’s education.

I think things are getting worse when they should be getting better. With all the knowledge and wealth in the world, there is no excuse for anybody to go hungry or be killing each other. I think [the answer is] the arts.

Linton: The really important thing for Chineke! is representation. We do what we see other people who look like us doing. It’s important that children from any background are able to see and know that, if they want to, this is an option for something they can do when they get older. There is no barrier.

I get hit with questions like, “Why does it need to exist?” And to go back to what Chi-chi said, we’ve been doing these education projects as long as I can remember. Yay inclusion — let’s get everybody involved! Well, Chineke! has done more for diversity in the classical music world than any education project, because those projects are funded for a year, two years, three years — then funding goes, and we’re back to square one.

Chineke! has dropped a meteor in the pond, and it has come at the perfect time when people are thinking about diversity and inclusion. But this is making people go, “OK this is something we cannot ignore anymore, because they’re there, and they’re not going anywhere.”

Chi-chi: What I’ve seen springing up since we started are other schemes with big powerhouse symphony orchestras that have been around for more than a hundred years. The London Philharmonic has their junior scheme. The London Symphony Orchestra last January announced its new scheme, LSO Academy of the East.

Jacqui: These are diversity initiatives at other orchestras?

Chi-chi: Yes. Literally. They are starting with 10 violins; so strings the first year, winds the second — I’m not sure why, but I think that’s a shame. Why not do all instruments at once?

Linton: I guess there’s more access to string players.

Chi-chi: Yeah but we need winds! Especially horn players. You know, when I was looking for horn players in the beginning, I was thinking, “Why have we only got big brass, like trombones and tuba? And big instruments like double basses, bassoons etc. Where are our trumpet players and horn players, and flutes and piccolos?” I had to go searching across the world for these people.

One of the horn professors at a London conservatory said they’d been involved in so many of these workshops in schools, with colleagues doing brass workshops, they said to me, “Chi-chi, we are to blame.” And I said, “What do you mean by that?” And they said, “Because I heard my colleagues saying, ‘We’re going to select which children to play which instruments.’ We said, ‘OK we’re going to put the black children on the bigger instruments with bigger mouthpieces. And we’ll put the white kids with smaller lips on the horns and trumpets.’”

And I said to him, “Try telling that to Wynton Marsalis!” I mean, what an absolute insult.

Jacqui: I almost can’t even imagine it.

Linton: The line we get is always, “Well we’re not getting [black or mixed-ethnicity musicians] from the conservatories.” You speak to the conservatories, “Well, we’re not getting them from the schools.” And you speak to the schools and it’s all, “Well, we’re not getting the funding, and we can’t get the teachers.”

It’s always a grassroots problem, it’s always someone else’s responsibility passed on. I want to go back into the conservatories, and that’s where we say [to underrepresented musicians]: We’re going to give you this opportunity so that when you are out in the world and you’re up against that white guy in an audition, it’s obvious that we should pick you.

I had all of my access for free. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t paid for and wasn’t given to me and people didn’t believe in me. I’m the one who slipped through the gap, but it is about making those opportunities. Is it fair to give positive bias [toward nonwhite musicians]? The playing field was never level to begin with.

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