Championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music

Betania Johnny, violin, Chineke! Orchestra
Chineke credit eric richmond
Members of the Chineke! Orchestra © Eric Richmond

Chineke! Orchestra kicks off its Canadian tour with a performance at Southam Hall on March 16. The orchestra, making its debut in Canada, was founded in 2015 to provide career opportunities for Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians in the UK and Europe. 

After its first concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in September of 2015, the Chineke! Orchestra was appointed as an Associate Orchestra of the Southbank Centre and has performed there and in other major venues across the UK and Europe. Many cultural organisations such as the BBC, Association of British Orchestras, Royal Philharmonic Society and Arts Council England have supported Chineke! since its launch.

Violinist Betania Johnny shares her experience of being part of the Chineke! Orchestra

Q: Tell us about your decision to join the Chineke! Orchestra. What was your experience like?

I was invited to take part in the Chineke! Junior Orchestra from the orchestra’s conception in 2015. I was just starting at my former secondary school and it was something that definitely seemed exciting to me, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I knew that my secondary school wasn’t the most diverse, so it was incredibly important to me to have a community of people that understood my personal experiences and also shared my love of classical music.

In 2020, I remember receiving my first email inviting me to play with the Chineke! Orchestra. It was my first experience playing with a professional orchestra, and it was a recording session with Elena Urioste, performing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto in G minor. We’ll be performing work by Coleridge-Taylor on this upcoming tour, so this concert, which is the first on our tour, will be so special to me. I am so humbled to be able to come full circle and to be able to look back on my time so far as part of the Chineke! Orchestra. 

Q: How has Chineke! changed your perspective of the world of classical music?

Chineke! was the primary, if not the only organisation, in introducing world by underrepresented composers from marginalised groups to me. It has vastly changed my perspective on classical music, in the sense that it has widened my view of the landscape of classical music. Chineke! started the spark in my curiosity to delve into composers that weren’t being taught about in the institutions that I attended or the other organisations that I was a part of. I have had an immense opportunity to play great works that have now become some of my all-time favourites, for example Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony and Pulse by Brian Nabors.

Q: The Chineke! Orchestra works with its sister ensemble, the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, a youth orchestra of Black and ethnically diverse players aged 11-22. Are you involved in this program, and how does the program work?

I was a member of the Chineke! Junior Orchestra from 2015 until the ensemble’s inaugural summer European tour in 2022. We would rehearse for a period of a few days a few times in the year, with concerts on at the Clore Ballroom of the Southbank Centre. Some of the concerts that we performed in were side-by-side concerts, where young children (and their parents) had the chance to sit close to the orchestra members and see everything up close. It was really great for those children to feel like they could be part of an orchestra like the Chineke! Juniors one day. For the Chineke! Junior Orchestra’s summer tour, we had the opportunity to play in Berlin’s Konzerthaus, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the Lucerne Festival. It was a great experience to perform in venues that were foreign to most, if not all of the orchestra. 

Q: Chineke! Orchestra’s March 16 concert at the NAC is the kick off to their tour. Tell us about the programming, and what audiences can expect at Chineke! concerts. 

The programme for the orchestra’s concert on March 16 consists of the following pieces: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite, Stewart Goodyear’s Callaloo for Piano and Orchestra, and Florence B. Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor.

Chineke! concerts always consist of varied programming, so they are a breath of fresh air from other concerts that frequently programmes the most famous works of the canon, which Chineke! is actively working to include underrepresented composers in. Audiences can expect no limits to Chineke’s programming, we’ve performed concerti for percussion, violin, tuba, wind quintet and more! Chineke!’s audiences should always expect to be engaged and to come away finding out about new composers or new repertoire. As exciting and entertaining as Chineke!’s concerts are, they are also great learning experiences for audience members. 

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