I think before I get into writing this review I should make one or two things clear… I am not a fan of classical music, I am not a fan of violins and I am under the age of 35. These factors mat affect my views, but hopefully you can forgive me.
After a long day on my feet I was looking forward to a sit down. I bought some tickets to a Royal Northern Sinfonia concert several months ago for a friend so I thought the luxurious surroundings of Sage Gateshead’s Hall One would be as good a place as any to rest my weary joints (like I said, I’m only just under 35). I’m going to be honest, I hadn’t paid much attention to what the concert was going to be, it was more a case of a suitable date and genre. So when it dawned on me that my least favourite instrument was to feature I was, well I was gutted. Fortunately, I appreciate good musicianship when I see it, and I most definitely saw it tonight. More on that shortly.
I realise that I am meant to be reviewing the concert and not the audience, but I can’t ignore the incident I was witness to beforehand. I guess punk isn’t dead, the youth of today like to challenge authority, go against the grain, throw caution to the wind, which is why I was more than a little surprised to see an older lady entering the gents toilets, only to be challenged by a gentleman making his way out. The exchange went like this: ‘excuse me, the ladies’ are this way’ ‘I know, I’m meeting my husband on the other side’ ‘well you can’t come through here’ ‘ARE YOU TELLING ME WHAT TO DO?’ ‘I wouldn’t dare…’ ‘NEITHER WOULD I!’. At this point I exited left for fear of trivialising this stand-off with my laughter. Needless to say, the lady in question was most probably ‘a lady’ and exuded a sense of entitlement only a very demographic can espouse. That demographic (silver haired, upper-middle class octogenarians) made up 99% of the audience, but I like that, I felt glad that so many people share a passion, and that they can all join together in a venue designed to optimise their experience of the music they love. I actually sensed a youthful mischievety (I’m allowed to make words up).
I digress. Upon taking my seat I learned that the concert would be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, which may have upped the ante for the performers but served as an appetite whetter for the audience, it must be good. As the announcer announced, what better way to start than with an overture? Beethoven has played a blinder with this one, lovely and mellow, with some sublime dynamics from what has been described as the finest chamber orchestra in the country (including Scotland), this piece grows in drama as it unfolds. For me the highlight was some wonderful French Horn playing, complimented by some succulent cello.
Lars Vogt is taking over at the Sage as conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and he is certainly an effusive chap, entertaining to watch, not only for the audience but the orchestra alike as there were smiles radiating from within the ranks. Following the overture Herr Vogt welcomed onto the stage Alissa Margulis who performed a Brahms violin concerto with aplomb. Friends of mine on facebook might have seen an interval status update from me saying ‘violins: screechy’, but rest assured this is my general view of violins and was in no way a reflection of the quality of the virtuoso who skilfully screeched away onstage. I have to be honest, I didn’t enjoy the piece, call me an uncultured funk and soul troglodyte but the high-pitched sound of a violin does nothing for me (apart from bringing on a headache). Having said that, I am able to separate a virtuoso from a 13 year-old Northumberland County Youth String Orchestra member (bitter memories), and Ms Margulis certainly falls into the former category, her quick fingered fiddling would put the flightiest of pick-pockets to shame. She had a lovely dress on too, but this isn’t the X-factor, so I won’t dwell on her appearance.
I don’t know if the nerves of being broadcast live on the radio got to them, but the symphony of coughs unfortunately reached a crescendo in the tail end of the concerto and continued into the final piece, Beethoven’s No.6 ‘Pastoral’. I was encouraged to see a couple of trombonists enter the fray, although I think Ludvig Van should give them a bit more limelight in whatever he writes next (or has he given up?). There were recognisable themes throughout the piece, although while I felt I knew them they annoyingly cut short before I imagined they would finish, but that wasn’t the Royal Northern Sinfonia’s fault.
Again, there was some excellent musicianship from all members, I think the timpani player deserves a mention, and the flautist and oboe players in particular gave effervescent and spirited solos. I was wondering what a chamber orchestra member earns in a year, but it didn’t seem to matter to them, they appeared to be loving every moment they were blowing, scratching or thumping. As I mentioned earlier, the dynamics Lars Vogt manages to get from the orchestra is really something. As a musician myself (well, I play trombone) I know how difficult it is to maintain an intensive and difficult line while observing very specific changes in volume and force, and these guys did it admirably.
Hall One of the Sage is a magnificent venue, and whatever your musical preference I strongly urge you to take the plunge. My taxi driver is making his first visit shortly (it’s been open 10 years), so it’s never too late. I’ll be back at the end of next month to see Gregory Porter, you can expect to hear about that too.
A final apology. Unfortunately I was not permitted to take photographs, so I can’t bring you images of the exciting dress I mentioned earlier, however I did manage to sneak a couple on my iPad, albeit a little grainy and ‘distant’. You can listen to the whole concert on the BBC iPlayer for the next 30 days to (hopefully not) debunk everything you have just read!
Reviewer and photographer: Joe Fowler