New York Times: She Was the Orchestra’s Only Black Musician Until She Started Her Own

LONDON–For Chi-chi Nwanoku, coming up with the right name for her new minority orchestra was a stressful experience.

Though Ms. Nwanoku had quickly formed a board of directors and had already selected most of her players — 62 musicians representing 31 different nationalities — she was constantly reminded that it would be hard to promote their first concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Center here in September 2015 or to even set up a website without a name.

She knew she did not want it to be the Such-and-Such Philharmonic or the Something Symphony, and the recent trend for orchestras to take Latin or Greek names also did not inspire her. But the night before one of her board meetings, the name came to Ms. Nwanoku, a double bass player who grew up in Britain, where she was classically trained.

“I literally sat bolt upright in my bed at 4 a.m. and I just shouted ‘Chineke!’ ” she said, referring to a word from the Nigerian Igbo tribe, which was her father’s clan. “In Chinua Achebe’s book ‘Things Fall Apart,’ you see the word ‘Chineke’ every now and then, with people exclaiming it when something amazing happens. It means ‘wonderful’ or ‘wow.’ ”

The next day, when the board members asked her the inevitable question about a name, Ms. Nwanoku told them and explained the meaning behind it. The board loved the idea.

“My dad would be smiling that this Igbo word is being said by everybody,” said Ms. Nwanoku, who has Irish ancestry on her maternal side. “And it means something so positive.”

Since that first concert, the Chineke! Foundation — which includes both Europe’s first professional orchestra made up entirely of minority musicians from across Britain and Europe, and also a junior orchestra — has had a strong impact not only on the musicians involved, but also on the audiences.

The first concert in 2015 during the Africa Utopia festival sold out, and fans lined up outside the concert hall hoping to get in. The performance last year, held at the Southbank’s larger Royal Festival Hall, which seats over 2,000, was also hugely popular.

This year the orchestra has a number of performances, including a concert this past Sunday, St. George’s Day, at St. George’s Bristol, a former church turned concert space. In May, some members who have performed with the Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit based in Detroit that is dedicated to the development of black and Latino classical musicians, will appear in a musical showcase in the Netherlands.

“Chi-chi is a force of nature, and what she has been able to do in a short period of time, it has been fantastic,” said Afa S. Dworkin, the president and artistic director of Sphinx. “The response has been undeniably positive throughout the musical community.”

Ms. Nwanoku came up with the idea after attending a showcase of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kinshasa Symphony at Africa Utopia in 2014. It reminded her of a conversation she had had with Ed Vaizey, then Britain’s culture minister, who said that whenever he attended a symphony or ensemble where Ms. Nwanoku was performing, she often was the only member of a minority on stage.

Ms. Nwanoku has played with some of Europe’s leading chamber orchestras and was a founding member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London. “All of the orchestras I have played in, I have always been the only person of color for 35 years,” she said, adding that many British orchestras go into minority and ethnic communities to perform and educate on classical music.

After the conversation with Mr. Vaizey, and noticing that the audience for the Kinshasa Symphony performance was almost entirely white, she decided to do something.

She soon began recruiting professional musicians from across Britain and Europe, including those with Indian, Bangladeshi, Caribbean, African, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Iranian backgrounds. Within months, Chineke’s professional orchestra was booked to perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

“Chi-chi managed to get things organized very fast, but you know she was a sprinter,” said Simon Rattle, the artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic and a longtime friend, referring to the fact that Ms. Nwanoku was a competitive runner until age 18, when she was injured.

“We want to spread the word that classical music is for absolutely everybody,” Mr. Rattle said. “And of course, we need orchestras to slowly and surely start looking like the communities in which they play.”

Five days before Chineke’s debut, the musicians practiced together for the first time, and though they were a bit unsteady at first, they quickly found their feet. “It was the first time that many of us felt that no one was the odd man out,” Ms. Nwanoku said. “At the end of the day, everyone was embracing.”

Desmond Neysmith, a British cellist who is a Sphinx alumnus, said performing for the first time with Chineke was a highlight of his career. “I have done thousands of concerts, and very few stick out and stay in one’s memory forever,” he said, “and that inaugural concert would be in that category, and it was one of those projects when you get paid at the end, you see it as an extra bonus.”

While Mr. Neysmith and other orchestra members say it has been great to perform with one another, Chineke’s true purpose is to inspire young minorities to pick up instruments.

“There is definitely a part of doing this for the younger generation,” said Lena Fankhauser, a Juilliard-trained violist based in Vienna. “For them to have somebody to look up to, that is one of the main motivations for all of us and why we do what we do.”

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, an 18-year-old cellist who is a member of both of Chineke’s orchestras, comes from a family of classical musicians, including an older sister and brother who are both studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music.

Mr. Kanneh-Mason, who last year was the first black person to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year award, said that when he attended concerts while he was growing up, there were very few black or minority musicians on stage.

“It has been inspiring to see lots of other young musicians like me,” he said. “I plan to be involved in Chineke until Chineke becomes unnecessary because eventually the aim will be for diversity to be the norm in classical music.”

A version of this article appears in print on April 21, 2017, on Page A14, in The International New York Times.