As part of our digital summer residency centred on Errollyn Wallen’s piece Mighty River, we’ve been exploring historical and musical context, and learning about Black composers, Black musicians in our art-form and racial justice initiatives that are emerging in classical music. Through a series of inspiring webinars with guest speakers, we have been opened the space for conversation.
We were thrilled to meet Uchenna Ngwe, a renowned oboist and artistic director of Decus Ensemble, whose aim is to bring to light music that has been overseen. Uchenna created plainsightSOUND, which explores music written, performed and recorded by classical musicians of African descent in Britain. In their recent project Hidden Sounds Experiment, Decus Ensemble has explored the following works of five composers during the lockdown period, performing pieces of music which were mostly seen for the first time, and recording from their homes.
1729, in the same year that Bach had repeated his performance of the updated version of his Matthew Passion, Handel had become a manager at King’s Theatre in London and Vivaldi had published one of his Violin Concerti in Amsterdam, Ignatius Sancho was born. Ignatius Sancho, known as the first man of African descent to vote in the English parliamentary election, was also a composer, among other things. Here is Decus Ensemble’s performance of his 2nd Minuet from Minuets, Cotillons and Country Dances, published in 1775. Originally written for two violins, two horns and a double bass, the piece is arranged by Uchenna Ngwe for eleven instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and harp).
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), born in Guadeloupe, was the son of an enslaved woman and her slave master. He moved to Paris at the age of seven with both his parents, where he became a champion fencer and renowned musician and composer, working in Paris Opera. Among his most powerful works is the String Quartet in C major Op.1 No. 1, its first movement of which you can find performed by Decus Ensemble.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), was one of Britain’s most popular composers before his death of pneumonia at the age of 36. He studied music in the Royal College of Music. Decus Ensemble, has performed his piece They Will Not Lend Me a Child, taken from his collection of 24 Negro Melodies for piano, which includes melodies taken from African American, Caribbean, and African cultures. This song was collected by a Swiss missionary from Southeast Africa at the time and it is arranged by Decus Ensemble and former NYO musician Nathan Knight (double bass, NYO 2010-12) and musician Ruby Aspinall (harp).
Justinian Tamusuza (b. 1951) was born in Uganda and studied music at Queen’s University in Belfast. His piece Abaafa Luli for Wind Quintet was performed below by Decus Ensemble, as part of their Hidden Sounds Experiment project. This piece is a fusion of traditional Kiganda music (from Uganda) with European classical styles.
Yannick Hiwat (b. 1988) is a Dutch-Surinamese jazz violinist, who spends a lot of time working with different types of violin. His music explores different textures and techniques of violins, with a special focus on 5 and 7-strings violins. Yannick was artist-in-residence at De Doelen during 2016-18 and is currently an artist-in-residence at Het Concertgebouw. He incorporates a fusion of classical music and jazz into the music he writes. His piece Angri Si Skapu, na Tigri Nyanyan (The hungry sheep is the tiger’s meal), was commissioned by Decus Ensemble.
To find out more about Uchenna Ngwe’s work, Decus Ensemble and the Hidden Sounds Experiment, head to plainsightSOUND.
We are sharing music from diverse voices on our social media channels and would love to see your recommendations. Follow #NYOMightyRiver and let us know of the music you’ve been enjoying.