Northern Chords: Unfinished at St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle on 27th May 2015

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I acknowledge from the outset that this is a bit of an odd review. In fact, it’s a review that has made me slightly question the sanity of NE:MM’s usually brilliant editor. Every so often, for those of you who don’t know, NE:MM likes to do what could be called ‘out of the comfort zone’ reviews. This is where a reviewer is sent to take in and then write about a gig or performance that falls outside their usual remit. So, a rock writer might be sent to a jazz gig, or a metal writer to an indie gig, with the result being an interesting ‘outside’ take on a particular band or style of music. But I think sending me – a drum and bass fanatic – to witness a performance of Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ is pushing it a touch: a bit like sending a Siberian reindeer herder to judge the best German Wirehaired Pointer at next year’s Crufts. He’s probably going to recognise he’s looking at a selection of dogs, but as for choosing which one is the best and why? You might as well replace him with a cabbage. Such was the same way I felt. I knew I was listening to a performance of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ 8th Symphony, and after that Mozart’s ‘Requiem’. But apart from that, I was a little bit lost.

Before we get into all that though, let me tell you a bit about the gig itself. It took place at St. Nicholas’ Cathedral in Newcastle, as part of the week long Northern Chords Festival between the 24th and 30th of May. It is a festival which brings musicians both local and from further afield together for a week of classical performances at various locales around the city, with the one I attended being the Wednesday performance, featuring the aforementioned ‘unfinished’ pieces by Schubert and Mozart. Providing what we in the dance music world call ‘the selection’ were four international soloists: Jennifer Witton, Anna Huntley, Ben Johnson and Jonathan Mcgovern; the Northern Chords Festival Orchestra and Chorus, and also the Newcastle High School for Girls Choir, and on what we in the drum and bass world refer to as ‘hosting duties’ was conductor Jonathan Bloxham. We arrived around fifteen minutes before the performance was due to begin and took our seats in the stalls of the rather messianic cathedral, before I took out my notepad and pencil (that got a stare from the woman to my immediate right) and settled in with what can only be called keen anticipation. I was looking forward to seeing what this was going to be like.

Soon the orchestra arrived, and my instant thought was that I will never complain about having to cart records to and from nightclubs ever again. Some of their instruments looked enormously heavy. But before long they had all arranged their awkwardly shaped musical devices into the appropriate positions and were ready to start. The conductor walked out, bowed, and then told everyone to turn their mobile phones off. I nodded my approval: the amount of people you see in nightclubs huddled behind their phones when they should be dancing can be maddening at times. Something we can learn from, perhaps. Then before I knew what was happening, the sound of Schubert filled the cathedral like beams of light flashing across a sundial. I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback: I know roughly what classical music sounds like but the sheer level of decibels that the orchestra achieved surprised me a little. It was loud. I was also struck by the harmonisation. It seems like an odd point to make, but seeing so many people synchronise such complicated instruments – each with their own sound – into a coherent whole was very impressive. I’ve had to leave indie gigs before because three people can’t make a guitar, a bass, and some drums sound good together. Therefore, seeing countless instruments blending together so well is something I can appreciate hugely.

But after four or so…songs? Sections? My concentration began to drift a bit. I felt like the music was happening in fits and starts: so there would be a nice, quiet section with only two or three instruments waltzing graciously with each other, and then instantly the whole orchestra would be blaring. I love tense, anticipative progression, and I love crescendos, but I felt like there wasn’t enough of the former to lead to the latter; I wasn’t allowed to foresee some of the more intense parts of the symphony for the simple reason they happened so unexpectedly. And then, just when I’d got my head round the strength and passion of one particularly forceful segment, it would recede back into quietness and the whole loop would start again. It was a bit jarring, and for me the symphony didn’t flow as well as it could (and should) have. My criticism is probably not therefore of the orchestra, but of Schubert’s composing skills. I bet he never thought he would find his music being criticised by someone like me, that’s for sure.

After a short interval, Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ began, and I was instantly so much happier than I was with Schubert. For one, the choir came on, and shortly afterwards the four aforementioned international solo singers took the stage too. They were great, harmonising with each other and seeming to feed off each other’s raw energy. One would begin singing, and halfway through another would, and so on, almost like a vocal relay race which I found very elegant and exceedingly well timed. My partner, who plays the clarinet and therefore has a smidgen more knowledge than I do about classical music, piped up an absolute gem at this point. ‘It’s like a classical version of a rap battle’, she whispered in my ear. I promised I wouldn’t include that line in the review but it’s too good to leave out. Anyway, I found the actual composition better too: it flowed in a way that Schubert’s didn’t, and the changes in mood and ambience were very notable: you knew precisely when the Requiem had moved into slightly more sinister and murky waters. The sudden dark swings of tone actually made me shiver a bit, and this affect added to a symphony that, in my uneducated opinion, was more moving and more fulfilled than Schubert’s. I guess they don’t call Mozart the finest composer ever for nothing. A surprisingly short amount of time later, the performance was over, and the performers got a well deserved ovation. It was hometime: or, more precisely, time for me and my partner to talk through my notes over a pint at a nearby destination.

So, thinking broadly, what did I like about going to this performance? Well, I can appreciate a lucid combination of skill, ardour, and dexterity, and I think all the performers – both in the orchestra and the choir – had it in droves. They weren’t just there for something to do: they were there because it was something they really enjoy doing, and I can seriously relate to that. I also liked the audience. It was a proper mix of ages, and no less than two people in my row let out audibly emotional sniffs at some point in the two hours. Considering there were around twenty rows, we can extrapolate outwards and conclude forty or so people were emotionally moved by what they were hearing. And that’s what good music should do: it should unlock emotions and feelings that otherwise remain dormant and hidden inside your unconscious. While it didn’t unbolt any hidden poignant caverns in me, I can fully understand why it did so in other people. I also liked that hard to define thing you could call ‘the experience’. I simply enjoyed myself, and at no point did I feel baffled or incredulous or like I was viewing the entire thing from the other side of a dance music tinted pane of glass. There were good twenty minute stretches where I made no notes, simply because my attention had been grabbed for a bit. I was able, in other words, to immerse myself a bit in the atmosphere and appreciate this for what it was, rather than sitting there with my ‘I Am A Music Reviewer And I Will Therefore Be Completely Objective And Emotionless’ face on.

What didn’t I like? Both my partner and I were disappointed that we couldn’t see much of what was going on. Put shortly, the cathedral floor is flat, meaning we were sat neither above nor below the performers. Consequently, what the orchestra were actually doing with their instruments was something we couldn’t see. We both would have infinitely preferred if the orchestra were on some sort of raised stage so we could have observed what they were actually doing. It is about the music, of course, but my partner made the fair point that, as a clarinet player, a lot of the experience for her is being able to see how talented musicians handle and perform their instruments. Although the music they are playing is being read off a sheet, she continued, each individual musician has their own minutely different style, and this was what she would have liked to see a bit clearer. This is probably a drawback of the venue simply not having the facilities to accommodate a stage. Speaking of the venue, I wasn’t sure about that either. I understand that for many the experience of a cathedral and the experience of classical music can enhance each other, but I found it a little bit…unsettling. I would have much preferred if the location was somewhere, well, not in a cathedral or church, to be honest. It was a bit too eerie for my liking.

Aside from all this, my weirdly attentive brain noticed all sorts of peculiarities. I noticed how – when one ‘section’ ended with a brief pause – no-one seemed to know if they were supposed to applaud: there were many (me included) who spent these brief pauses looking around to see if anyone else was about to clap or not, hands held slightly apart in the same way a fisherman does when he’s telling his mate how big that fish was he caught yesterday. I also loved – loved – the conductor. To my untrained eyes and ears, his movements seemed to have no correlation with the music whatsoever, but I was slightly overwhelmed by his insistence on doing such an energy expending task in a full black suit. Seeing him wipe enough sweat to fill an oxbow lake off his brow at the end made me smile no end, and made me appreciate how much of a ‘it’s harder than it looks’ style job he actually does. Finally, I noticed the gentleman sat directly in front of me would involuntarily jerk his head back and forwards at every crescendo – in what we refer to in the dance music world as a ‘serious head nod’ – and this made me smile too. Maybe, aside from the differences in how they sound, drum and bass and classical music are similar in that they both take you somewhere else: they make you forget you’re a mortal being for a short while and allow you to submerge yourself in a different sort of aurally shaped existence.

Will I be going back to a classical music performance next week? No, probably not. But do I feel richer for the experience of going to one? Yes, absolutely. It was, on reflection, a very nice way to spend an evening, and if you’re someone who complains that there aren’t enough things to do in Newcastle I would recommend it as a way or taking in something a bit different. Weirdly, the evening in its entirety ended with my partner and I talking about black holes. I made the (slightly alcohol infused) observation that the term black hole is an interesting one, considering that what the term refers to is technically neither black nor a hole. My point was that we need reference points in order to be able to understand and talk about things meaningfully; we need to be able to relate something to something else in order to be able grasp more clearly the function and essence of what the original thing is. I think it’s why I struggled so much witnessing these two symphonies, and why I’ve had trouble writing up this review, because classical music is simply so far away from what I am used to listening to and I therefore had trouble working out what I thought of it. So let me end by using a final dance music idiom. To Northern Chords and their orchestras and choirs: thank you very much for letting me witness a proper wicked set. It was banging.

Reviewer: Matthew Scott

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