Vivienne Kennedy reviews Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra and Choir at Bristol Colston Hall.
On Tuesday 16 September I visited Bristol’s Colston Hall to watch the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra and Choir perform the last concert of their first ever UK tour, and I consider myself very, very lucky to have seen them.
The orchestra, which is based in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was established in 1994 by conductor and musical director Armand Diangienda, who says:
“The orchestra has come to symbolise hope for a lot of people, not just the Congolese but in Africa and even further internationally. There is a general feeling that nothing is ever positive…this orchestra reminds everyone…that there are possibilities.”
Kinshasa is home to some of the poorest inhabitants on the planet and everyday life there can be a constant struggle for survival. The orchestra has grown from a group of 10 or 12 musicians who had to share instruments when they practised to between 60 and 100 people as well as a 100-strong choir who regularly sing with them. They are mostly self-taught and often play on home-made instruments. They are, quite frankly, awesome.
During the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra and Choir’s visit to the UK they have been working with musicians from some of the UK’s finest professional and youth ensembles, including the Hallé Orchestra and Choir (and their youth counterparts); the Southbank Sinfonia; and the BBC Concert Orchestra as well as the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Sinfonia Cymru and Bristol Choral Society, who all took part in Tuesday’s concert.
As well as playing alongside each other in rehearsal and performances in Manchester, London, Cardiff and Bristol, the various orchestras have also offered workshops to the Congolese musicians, ranging from instrument repair sessions to section and individual masterclasses.
The concert opened with Finlandia by Sibelius, performed by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and Sinfonia Cymru, conducted by Jamie Phillips of the Hallé. It was beautiful.
Phillips and the musicians then left the stage and we listened to a performance comprising several pieces of Congolese Choral Music by the Kinshasa Choir before Armand Diangienda brought just the Congolese musicians back to perform Mayimbi and Balongi’s Symphony No.1, movements one and three, composed by members of the orchestra. I enjoyed this section very much and was quite sorry when it came to an end and the house lights came on to signal the interval.
The first half of the show was fantastic, but the second half was even better.
With all the musicians back on stage, it started with Symphonie Fantasique by Berlioz, movements four and five, which are better known as March to the Scaffold and Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath, and continued with the finale from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Ode to Joy, featuring the massed voices of the Kinshasa Choir and Bristol Choral Society as well as soloists Bryony Williams, Emma Stannard, Matthew Moss and Daniel Shelvey.
I don’t have the words to describe how much I enjoyed listening to this music, which makes me a bit of a rubbish reviewer really, but I can say that at times I couldn’t keep myself from grinning and at other moments all I could think was “wow”.
It was also a joy to watch, from Jamie Phillips’s enthusiastic conducting to the perfectly in time bows of the string players as they moved across the strings of their instruments. The Kinshasa Orchestra musicians might be self-taught but they certainly matched the skill of the young British musicians they shared the stage with, most of whom, I’m guessing, have been taught by the best teachers and at the finest music schools from an early age.
The applause was loud and sustained and the standing ovation richly deserved but there was one last treat, an encore performed by the Congolese musicians and singers alone, their British counterparts obviously enjoying the sound every bit as much as the audience were; then one last round of applause, one more standing ovation, and it was all over, far too soon. I do hope they come back again.
The concert was preceded by a foyer performance by some of Bristol’s most talented young musicians who over the course of the last few weeks have created a 30 minute suite of music and song entitled The Hunt, which combines Congolese, western classical and popular music. The group have been working with South African composer and animateur Eugene Skeef, learning about Congolese music and culture, exploring friendship, love, conflict and mythology and the concepts of the hunter and the hunted. Their composition was developed through an exchange of music and ideas with the Kinshasa Orchestra and several of the musicians joined the group on stage. The foyer was packed for their performance and the atmosphere fantastic, putting everyone in the right mood for the night ahead.
The Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra and Choir’s tour of the UK was made possible by an Exceptional Award from Arts Council England.
Although the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra and Choir were appearing at the Colston Hall for one night only there is plenty more to keep Bristol’s music lovers happy in the venue’s autumn/winter programme.