Northern Sinfonia, Zehetmair, The Sage Gateshead | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Northern Sinfonia, Zehetmair, The Sage Gateshead
Are this Northern ensemble the best in the country?
Sting, Debbie Harry, the Pet Shop Boys, Brahms, Mozart, Schumann. This is the kind of thing an average year throws up for the Gateshead-based Northern Sinfonia. Their visits to London are mostly to provide a backing track for the top pop acts. Which is not only perverse but verging on the criminal. Because, as so many have noticed before, the Northern Sinfonia aren't simply another middle-of-the-road band of freelancers, they may well be the finest chamber ensemble working in the country today. That's certainly the conclusion I came to at their opening concert of the season last weekend at The Sage Gateshead.
The concert saw the start of their Brahms and Schumann symphonic cycle with their chief conductor, Thomas Zehetmair. Zehetmair is himself a compelling figure. Angular and jerky, and looking like he's just escaped an expressionist woodcut, Zehetmair conducts as if his life depends on it. Imploring, begging, haranguing, pawing and grabbing at the orchestra, Zehetmair began his Brahms and Schumman symphonic cycle in electrifying style, dragging the composers' first symphonies into an angsty and convulsive and fantastical world.
The encore was a beautifully tender, honest and calm moment at the end of a tempestuous evening
All the old stereotypes were scuttled. The idea of Schumann as an ungainly symphonist would not wash in this environment. The extraordinary details of ricocheting loveliness that were being teased out in Zehetmair's approach revealed an orchestrator of genius. The Brahms One, meanwhile, stodgy in some conductors hands, was lithe, dynamic, surprising and almost demonically edgy. Some might have questioned the extreme yanks in tempo of the final movement but no one could gainsay the excitement that the orchestra and Zehetmair generated.
The price that many chamber orchestras like the Northern Sinfonia and sparky conductors like Zehetmair pay for their energy and spontaneity is at the expense of clarity and a sense of ensemble. Not here. Zehetmair (the leader of an award-winning string quartet) achieved a string quartet's tightness. A miracle at times, considering the speeds demanded.
But that's the kind of thing that can happen when you have a chamber orchestra of soloists. The many instrumental arias that these first two symphonies of Schumann and Brahms contain proved the point. The oboe of Adrian Wilson, the clarinet of Jessica Lee, the horn of Peter Francomb, the ever attentive violin of orchestral leader Bradley Creswick and the heavenly flute of Juliette Bausor were all ravishing in their solo flights. It's one of the delights hearing this orchestra at the Sage. The acoustics (arguably the best in the country) bring out every single inner line, however deeply buried each might be within the orchestra fabric.
The ensemble began life half a century ago with a humble aim to plug a hole - to provide the North East with an orchestra life. Michael Hall, its founder, died earlier this year and Zehetmair dedicated the encore, the slow movement from Mozart's Prague Symphony (which was the first work that the orchestra played), to him. It was a beautifully tender and honest and calm moment at the end of a tempestuous evening.
Iplayer will have the concert to download for the next week. For Londoners, there are rumours that the orchestra will be coming down to the capital more often in the coming years - and in its classical guise too. But nothing quite beats the Sage experience. To hear this fine orchestra in its glorious home with its genius chief conductor is no doubt one of the great musical experiences that this country has to offer.
- Listen to the Northern Sinfonia concert on iplayer
- Check out the rest of the Northern Sinfonia season
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Classical music
Colourful British orchestral music, organ showstoppers and an avian-inspired piano premiere
A rousing standing ovation once again for Torke, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky
Shapeliness and soul-searching in Brahms, Schubert and Strauss
Blue skies from Respighi and Strauss, seasonal mystery from Brett Dean
Revamped concert hall and new concerto launch a delayed Philharmonic season
Remembrance-themed choral music, 20th-century cello concertos and an avant-garde vocal disc
Magisterial partnership triumphantly encompasses two Brahms concertos in one concert
Star percussionist leads tribute to maverick composer Steve Martland, but John Adams rules
A startling new comic opera, picturesque orchestral music and a terrifying Soviet symphony
One of music's iconoclastic glories breaks through cathedral murk in searing performance
Russian choir superb in unexpected masterpiece by a great piano composer
Delightful Sibelius programme compels despite a somewhat dogged soloist