Sinfonia, Silliness and Cynicism: An Amateur Preview of the Impending Season at Sage Gateshead

I recently read Jane Shuttleworth’s (p)review of the ‘Classical Season’ 2013/14 at what is now Sage Gateshead (they recently dropped the ‘the’ in a slightly confusing bit of slimming down. Maybe printer costs were getting too high or something. Although you wouldn’t think it from the opulent season programming booklet!). I duly thought ‘Hmm, I have thoughts about that. I might as well do something similar’ (DISCLAIMER: this might not have been my exact and precise sequence of thoughts but is probably a relatively reasonable representation and synonymous summary thereof). So, this is me relaying my thoughts on what the Sage Gateshead has got planned for the season! I shall warn you now that it will probably reflect as much about me as it does the programming, I am under no obligation to be objective. Furthermore, it will also consist of a lot of ‘NOOOOO THIS WILL PROBABLY BE AMAZING AND I WILL BE IN OXFORD NOT THE ‘DESOLATE’ NORTH!’. Furtherfurthermore, if anyone DOES still think that ‘desolate’ is a justifiable label for the North of England, hopefully this will convince you otherwise. And I think that is all I need to warn you of in advance of your reading this piece at your own risk.

So, let’s start at the very beginning, a very uncreative place to start. Falling before the beginning of October, this will be the only gig I’ll make it to before going back to uni, but it’s a good’un: Brahms’ A German Requiem. I do approve. Although it is indeed an interesting choice to open a season with a requiem, one could argue. Hopefully it’s got nothing to do with the fact that it will be Thomas Zehetmair’s final season at the Sage. In which case this all got very dark, very quickly. I shall move swiftly onwards (unlike Zehetmair who didn’t find ‘The North’ too desolate and hung around as an MD with what is now the Royal Northern Sinfonia for 12 seasons.) It now gets painful because there will be a whole series of Britten programming but I will be gone. Unless Oxford chuck me out or I chuck them out. Entirely plausible. On Tuesday the 8th October there will be a ‘ Britten Late Mix’. I must say it does slightly disappoint me that in the ‘Britten’ night there will only be 2 pieces by Britten. I mean, I know it has claimed to be a ‘mix’, but why not more Britten? I don’t know anyone who’d protest but I suppose I don’t know all of the clientèle of –the Sage. I say this but actually, considering I have worked a lot of their gigs I have met a fair few. And actually, maybe it’s as much about appealing to the people who aren’t yet clientèle…anyway. I digress. Point is- yay it’s Britten! boo it’s not that much Britten. Of course I should in fact be delighted that some composers who are (brace yourselves) actually still alive have also been featured on the programme- Thomas MacMillan and Colin Matthews. I shan’t get above my station though; I admit I have never listened to either. Yet.

Five days later it all gets incredibly exciting as the Halle visit with what would looks to be a pretty riveting programme featuring Britten, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. Again, I won’t be able to grace the event with my presence. Whenever I’ve seen/heard the Halle at the Sage Gateshead it’s always been an incredible experience due to the sheer power and energy of the orchestra. As it is a full orchestra, the stage is extended beyond its size to typically accommodate the Royal Northern Sinfonia, which means that if you are sitting near the front and particularly in one of the front boxes, the proximity with the sound and the players really is captivating. I found it interesting in particular that there could be a sense of intimacy despite the scale of both the orchestra and the audience. Perhaps that was because I was personally so immersed in the music which the players so clearly were producing with a similar focus and dedication so together, we were close to each other in our place of intensity within the sound. Or something. I dunno. But the Halle at the Sage Gateshead are GOOD. And the programme itself looks to be really stimulating too. Delightful.

Another four days later and Britten’s back with the Royal Northern Sinfonia. As other (p)review(s) (I DON’T KNOW WHICH IS CORRECT TERM I’M SORRY) have commented, it is a bit of a shame that Britten’s Les Illuminations are being diluted on either side with Mozart symphonies, with the same happening at the following RNS concert on the 25th October. And again on the 22nd November. In honesty, this disappoints me. I don’t know if there is some beautiful artistry in the programming I’m missing or if it’s just a marketing strategy. Some may argue that what I’m missing really is the awesomeness of Mozart. I would beg to differ but we can do that another way. Either way in this instance, I will be missing both the Mozart(x2) and the Britten(x1) as I will be away.

Fortunately the optimistically viewed ‘safe’ programming of Mozart against Britten is countered slightly by a more flavoursome attack of Dvorák from November-January. I reckon the Dvorjak Legends and Slavonic Dances paired with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D is going to be a powerful one, as long as it’s all given the full life it deserves. On the 12th December I get excited. Any notions of uncreative programming are banished for the evening with a caberet-style Late Mix ‘From Bohemia to the Black Sea’. In addition to Dvorák, Kodaly, Bartok, Enescu and Martinu will be featured. The concert should be exciting above all because it will give people the opportunity to hear some repertoire that is not oft…well… repeated.

January sees some pretty sensational stuff with Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht and CBSO bringing some Strauss upon their visit. I am particularly gutted to be missing CBSO as they will be play Don Juan, Four Last Songs and Stravinsky’s Petrushka and quite simply I am an unashamed fan of indulging in Straussian luxury. Back to RNS and we see what seems to be a general pattern once again in action. On the 6th February you will be able to hear the music of Ryan Wigglesworth, Berlioz, Ravel and… Mozart. Although not as alarming as the whole Mozart – Britten – Mozart sandwich series (not at all subtle, guys!) it does really seem to betray an alarming inability to program anything written in the last century without a Mozartian accompaniment. Excuse my cynicism/Mozart dislike/restrictive programming distaste though, it could simply be owing to the available ensemble and soloists, though I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse. Excitingly however, one of the soloists is Ryan Wigglesworth himself who along with having a frankly superb surname is the composer of the first piece to be performed: ‘First Book of Inventions’. If the praise from The Times is anything to go by, the guy’s amazing. Whatever the case, I have a feeling it will be an electrifying evening, maybe even in spite of the Mozart.

STOP PRESS! Maybe I spoke to soon. March sees both Britten and Ligeti feature in concerts sans Mozart! I reckon it’ll be all drama (of a sort, anyhow) on 6th March with Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra which will see the fantabulous Louisa Tuck in the solo spotlight, with Purcell’s Chacony and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Another exciting combination which, unlike the Mozart/Britten programs gives off an air of not needing to explain itself follows on the 20th with Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor and Mendelssohn’s third symphonic jaunt in A minor.

At this point I will pause to reflect that I probably was not supposed to write this much. But that is the beauty of the blog- no limits! Of course this also means that I’m in danger of producing a tedious, overly-wordy piece of drudgery that neither interests nor benefits anyone in which case I’m sorry. On the other hand if you’re still reading then thank you, I really do appreciate it, because presumably you do too. The it in that instance being this. At which point I pause to pose the question: have you ever before read a metafictional concert season programming review blog? And after that word-chomping digression I shall return to the season.

I must say I hope I am in the ‘desolate’ North on the 28th March. Juliette Bauser will be playing a whole host of what are sure to be some truly sparkling flute solos. Bach (x2), Messiaen, Prokofiev, Dutilleux, Sofia Gubaidulina and a new commission by Charlie Piper. Wow. I reckon it’s going to be damn good. I also reckon she chose her programme. The following concert also seems to have some fairly personal programming (no Mozart in sight) presented by John Casken. As well as conducting two of his own pieces, Winter Reels and Shadowed Pieces, Casken brings Lutosławski’s Entre-temps to the table. As Witold was John’s own mentor I reckon it will be a pretty exciting experience, particularly in the intimate setting of Hall Two. Fortunately, the contemporary composer has not been restricted to the smaller Hall Two this season with Casken’s Maharal Dreaming being performed in Hall One in April alongside Chopin, Weber and Sibelius. The one-movement epic from Finland alongside Der Freischutz Overture by a key figure in the Second Viennese school provide sparkling contrast even without the Chopin F minor concerto and Casken’s short work. Another concert I would hope not to miss.

If one ignores the amazing contribution of women to composition, as the world so often does, Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet would be my favourite piece for chamber ensemble. However I refuse to do this so my favourite chamber work is not being performed this year at the Sage Gateshead. Despite this one can hear Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in May alongside Nielsen’s Wind Quintet and Berg’s Lyric Suite. Although it is a shame to see no ladies on this list I expect it will still be a tantalising concert. Next year though, why not add some Fanny? The neglected Mendelssohn wrote some beautiful pieces, and I have never heard any music for a chamber ensemble that I’ve enjoyed more than that written by Louise Farrenc and Clara Wieck/Schumann. Just a thought.

The season ends as it begun with Thomas Zehetmair conducting. I’m sure it will be a weepy affair which fully engages with the grandiose of canonical hits, beginning with the overture to Don Giovanni and ending with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (you might recognise it…) Then we shall retreat back into our hovels and down our mineshafts and mourn our miserable existence in the desolate North as the government fracks everything around us.

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