wed 24/07/2024

Chineke!, Parnther, QEH review - a joyful re-building of the house | reviews, news & interviews

Chineke!, Parnther, QEH review - a joyful re-building of the house

Chineke!, Parnther, QEH review - a joyful re-building of the house

Not so Brutal: the South Bank's concrete palace reopens in jubilant style

Back in business: Chineke! at the QEHAll images Mark Allan

Even after the venue’s 30-month refurbishment, you still would not choose the sprawling foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as the prime site for a pre-concert speech.

By the time, last night, that Heritage Lottery Fund chair Sir Peter Luff got to say his piece – after Southbank Centre luminaries Jude Kelly, Elaine Bedell and Gillian Moore – the ambient din from a full house gathered to celebrate the QEH re-opening almost drowned his words.

Sir Peter pointed out that this auditorium and its neighbours occupy Thames-side land laid waste by Luftwaffe bombs. The commitment to diversity – in programming and personnel – showcased by the hall’s comeback concert hardly ranks as some new-minted fad. These post-war temples of culture (the QEH and Purcell Room first opened in 1967) arose in their Brutalist splendour from the rubble left by a hard-won victory over history’s worst outbreak of monocultural fanaticism. Besides, they paid attention to pluralism back in the Sixties, too. On its second evening, the QEH hosted jazz diva Cleo Laine. Its inaugural season, half a century ago, stretched from Daniel Barenboim to Pink Floyd and sax god Ben Webster. 

This evening had to celebrate more than just the music

Steered by architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, the £38 million make-over of the QEH and Purcell has rejuvenated and face-lifted these Swinging London icons without altering their essential character. Even if (like me), the grainy, chunky poetry of Brutalist concrete leaves you lukewarm at best, it was hard not to warm to the affection on show from staff and architects for each renovated board-marked pillar, aluminium seat and timber panel. Scuffed and tired when it closed its doors for rehab in 2015, the home of so many avant-garde happenings and adventures has scrubbed up nicely into what Gillian Moore, SBC’s director of music, calls “a cleaned-up, more beautiful version of its wonderful self”. Thanks to a new glass wall, you can now view the Thames from the two bars in the grand and airy foyer – just the groovy spot for Austin Powers to meet some classy Chelsea lady for a date. Meanwhile, concert-goers should appreciate the softer sound reflections from a wider stage. 

For the hall’s post-refurb celebration, Chineke! confidently took that stage. Founded by double-bassist (and ex-sprinter) Chi-chi Nwanoku, Europe’s first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra had – shortly after its foundation – performed one of the final QEH concerts before closure. Under the US conductor Antony Parnther (pictured below), they stormed back with a programme that pushed an audience of fervent fans to a standing ovation. This evening had to celebrate more than just the music, with Chineke! the shop-window act for a long-term SBC strategy that aims (in Nwanoku’s words) “finally to play to an audience that looks like the community we all live in”.

Chineke!, however, eschewed a simple feel-good buffet of populist favourites. They did begin with a signature dish: the Ballade in A minor for orchestra by the late-Victorian prodigy Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, child of an African (doctor) father and an English mother. Parnther conjured a sumptuous, full-bodied warmth from this lush and melodious crowd-pleaser, encouraged by Elgar but closer to Dvořák in its tones – or, perhaps, Dvořák after a night at the 1890s music-hall. Then, for a while, the mood darkened. Commissioned for this occasion, Daniel Kidane’s Dream Song sets words from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech for baritone, chorus and orchestra. If we expected Gospel-flavoured pastiche, Kidane delivered a shock. This turned out to be a sombre, shadowed piece, the hum and stab of anxiety and trepidation carried by the strings as Roderick Williams forcefully phrased King’s words of hope. Behind them, the choir sounded slightly overshadowed – and, arguably, under-used. But no one could accuse Kidane of indulging in sentimental Southern uplift (and yesterday was the 50th anniversary of King’s burial).Chineke!

Before the interval came (rather oddly) the overture: Britten’s The Building of the House, the very piece that opened this space back in 1967. As the bustling, scurrying strings recruited their fellow sections one by one into this rhythmically tricky project, Chineke! found their feet and then raced with swagger and dash towards a thrilling climax – with the choir’s hymn tune, this time, commanding the hall. For their post-break climax Chineke! went for Beethoven (who would surely have been delighted by this band). Yet they opted for the sometimes treacherous Fourth Symphony, not just a sunlit Haydn-esque breather between the twin peaks of the Eroica and Fifth but a swirling, shifting mix of tradition and innovation, always poised between the minor-key perplexity of its opening bars and the controlled but festive chaos of the finale.

Parnther’s podium style, debonair and even theatrical, seems suited to bigger spaces than an intimate 900-seater (he has gigged in stadiums, and it shows). But the sound he drew from Chineke!, led yesterday by the outstanding solist Tai Murray, hit just the right spot. Their dance-like surges and whirls left room for some ear-catching individual work from flute, clarinet and horns. Chineke! blended lilt and heft as they built, in tight formation, towards a joyfully affirmative conclusion. The evening certain called for that breath of jubilation, which they generously blew into an ecstatic crowd. Beyond the party mood, however, Chineke! showed their mettle with enough ambition, and authority, to augur well for their residence in this spruced-up space. Warming up the palace of concrete, they showed steel as well as fire.

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