Hall One was packed to hear the final concert conducted by Thomas Zehetmair on the banks of the Tyne before he steps down as Music Director. Given the prestige of the occasion, it should have been no surprise for me to discover that concert was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. All the microphones and buzz in the hall (from an audience who had just been told not to cough too much during the performance as their noises would be available for 7 days on iPlayer) gave the evening somehow an added significance. And once the music started, it was evident that Royal Northern Sinfonia were out to enjoy themselves thoroughly under their well-respected director.
The Overture to Don Giovanni by Mozart which began the concert gave RNS ample chance to show off its excellent first violin section, who frequently lead a delicate tune over the rest of the orchestra in this work. The polished sound to the orchestral chords throughout was impressive, as were the beautifully played but exposed lyrical lines from both wind and strings. There was a subtle sense of period to the music – a warm, collective string sound, with just the right touch of vibrato.
Joining Zehetmair and RNS on the stage next was viola player Ruth Killius, the conductor’s wife, to perform Bartók’s Viola Concerto. This work was finished off by the composer’s friend Tibór Sérly after Bartók’s death in 1945. Killius opened the concerto with an intense and melodic solo accompanied only by percussion. The lyricism felt particularly poignant on the viola, with its deeper tones more akin to the human voice, and Killius was very adept at changing her tone to fit the longer melodic lines or choppier passages. At times there seemed a film-like grandeur to the orchestral tuttis, the melodic sweeps of the strings building intensely to sudden stops and chords. The coordination between soloist and conductor was, unsurprisingly, fluid – her frequent looks up to check the beat mesmerised me half the way through. The final movement began with loud timp crashes, which prompted the viola into a frenzied torrent of semiquavers. Yet Killius never lost focus in this Allegro vivace, despite the complexity of the music. She drove the movement onward and gave a compelling performance.
What followed was an extraordinary performance of a new work by John Casken, co-commissioned by Zehetmair, Killius and Sage Gateshead for RNS – The Subtle Knot, Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. Formed of two movements, the work is inspired by a poem by John Donne and Casken transfers long lines between the two solo instruments in the beginning. The interplay was seamless between Killius and Zehetmair, who was also directing the orchestra throughout. This was amazing to watch, as he brought in wind entries and percussion, whilst turning pages, dueting with the viola and maintaining a cohesive sense of the performance.
The second movement began with a four-note descending scale on the violin, which was then picked up and reworked round the orchestra. The viola line at this point seemed to be tangling itself deeper in the knot, in counterpoint to the violin. At last the passionate sustained lines returned and the work relaxed into string harmonics and a subdued ending. The whole of the work felt incredibly coherent and unified, and this is no small part down to the outstanding performance by Killius and Zehetmair. I have no doubt this commission will be welcomed warmly into the double concerto repertoire. After thunderous applause, and bringing John Casken onto the stage, Zehetmair and Killius gave as encore Bartók’s Pizzicato duet, bringing a nice touch of humour to the stage.
At this point I thought I’d heard the best yet of the concert, I hadn’t reckoned with Zehetmair’s visionary Beethoven performances. The first movement of the Fifth Symphony, although difficult, is straight-forward for most orchestras, yet Zehetmair drove the opening with such charge and focus I was left in no doubt that it was his vision of Beethoven and a summary of his 12 years as Music Director that was being performed. The infamous chords, repeated throughout the movement, were impassioned and climactic. The wind entries were at times delicate, at others affirmative and challenging. I found myself smiling involuntarily all the way through the first movement, and I really hope everyone else in Hall One felt the same.
The variations of the second movement were lovingly handled from cellos up to flutes. Zehetmair, knowing his wind section, let them play expansively through the lyrical passages, but kept everything strictly in time when called for. He even employed my favourite trick with professional orchestras: bringing the strings and wind down so quiet that the audience had to strain on the edge of their seats to hear, before launching back into the melody. At another point, the first violins all gave a shimmering, ethereal effect by gliding their bows very gently over the strings, before the return of a fanfare-like entry from the brass. Zehetmair and RNS have clearly worked hard to create their performance of this grand symphony, and I think it was clear they were all having fun.
An orchestra having fun.
And at the end? A standing ovation from the majority of Hall One – not a frequent occurrence! And the walls of the hall itself were lit up with the text projections “Thank you” and “Danke”.
Why not have a listen? I think it’s available until Wednesday 18th June: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b046dd8b
Reviewer: Katie Lodge