sat 19/04/2014

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?

Thomas Zehetmair: the electrifying chief conductor of the Northern Sinfonia

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. 

To hear this orchestra with its chief conductor is one of the great musical experiences this country has to offer

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