Young Artist Aaron Akugbo Inspires at BBC Proms
“If someone had said to me a year ago I’d play a Haydn Concerto at the BBC Proms, I’d have told them ‘you’re joking’,” says trumpeter Aaron Akugbo, who made his Proms debut in September.
Performing with Chineke! Orchestra – a name taken from the Igbo language of Nigeria meaning ‘the spirit of good creation’ – Chineke! is the first professional orchestra in Europe formed of majority Black and ethnically diverse musicians.
“Championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music is important”, says Aaron who grew up in Edinburgh and is of Nigerian-Scottish descent. Making big waves in the classical music scene with his solo and orchestral performances, Aaron began playing trumpet after listening to his dad’s Louis Armstrong CDs as a child.
“I grew up loving Armstrong’s playing style, and I thought his singing voice was cool. Initially I wanted to specialise in jazz, seeing it as the only realistic way to have a music career. I didn’t see people that looked like me playing classical music.”
Aaron’s interests in classical music developed at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh where he was a chorister. He also joined the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.
On studying at the Royal Academy of Music, Aaron became a founding member of Connaught Brass, winners of The Musicians’ Company’s RAM Brass Ensemble 2018. Around the same time, he joined Ibex Brass, which won the RAM Brass Ensemble Prize 2019.
His initial reservations in playing chamber music – a path few professional brass musicians take – has taken him down a varied and eclectic route.
“By my third year at the RAM I was trialling in orchestras including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. On top of that, I was performing chamber music with my quintet. Winning the brass awards led to performance opportunities at Lucerne Festival and Wigmore Hall and helped launch both ensembles. We do at least a couple of gigs a month which is fairly unheard of for brass groups.”
Other successes have come off the back of Chineke! Orchestra. These include playing second trumpet next to Billy Hunter, Principal Trumpet with the Met Opera, and an invitation to perform as a soloist with the orchestra in 2020. This led to being signed by Maestra Arts. However, the biggest career break came from Chi-Chi Nwanoku, the founder and artistic director of Chinkeke! early 2023 with an invitation to perform at the Proms.
“Although my initial response was of fear – you’re performing in front of tens of thousands of people – walking into that space and hearing friends, family and music lovers applause put me at ease. Visualising how it would feel standing in front of all those people in advance of the big day also helped. The only thing I didn’t get used was the big camera at my feet!
Although it’s too early to say what opportunities will come from that performance – or the Lucerne Festival which I did the same week! – I hope the Chinkeke! Prom showed that people of any race, gender, ethnicity or sexuality can perform classical music to the highest standards on an international stage.
Making classical music accessible needs to be far more than a tick box exercise. It needs to cultivate and nurture new talent with the help of diverse role models. This will enrich classical music in the UK for generations to come.”
Interview by Suzy Willmott
Suzy is freelance copywriter who works with the Musicians’ Company