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North East orchestra goes underground - again!

The Cobwebs Orchestra is to follow up its Victoria Tunnel concert with a series of concerts in other dark places

Steve Messam Cobwebs Orchestra performing in the Victoria Tunnel
Cobwebs Orchestra performing in the Victoria Tunnel

One of the region’s best-loved and perhaps most unlikely orchestras is going underground – again!

Last year the Cobweb Orchestra, which schedules concerts and hopes enough of its players will turn up to perform, performed in the Victoria Tunnel which runs from Newcastle’s Tyne Moor to the Tyne.

Whereas at Sage Gateshead they can say its concert halls are acoustically perfect, at the Victoria Tunnel they can make no such boast.

It was designed for the easy transport of coal to waiting keelboats and during the Second World War served as an air-raid shelter. At no time did its suitability for the performance of Schubert or Bach enter the equation.

A little thing like that didn’t deter the Cobweb musicians when they donned the modern equivalent of miners’ lamps and ventured below.

Andy Jackson, from Bishop Auckland, who has run the orchestra for the whole of its near 20-year existence, looks back on that October concert as a success.

“It’s a bit colder down there than we’re used to, but it’s not awful,” he reports.

“Performing underground does create some tuning issues, but all these spaces are at a constant 12 degrees, which is a bit weird.”

Not weird enough to put off the doughty Cobwebs.

The orchestra has announced a series of follow-up concerts at the York Nuclear Bunker (May 16), Cleveland Ironstone Museum at Skinningrove, near Redcar (July 26), the Honister Slate Mine (September 20) and, further down the line, the Tyne Pedestrian Tunnel which is currently being refurbished.

Tickled by the orchestra’s burrowing instinct, Arts Council England has awarded it £15,000 for this series of concerts which will culminate in an end-of-year performance of its Underground Suite, comprising a series of new works composed for each subterranean venue by Manchester composer Michael Betteridge, at Sage Gateshead.

Andy says the Victoria Tunnel concert had been planned as part of the series but was brought forward at the request of the people who run it. The Cobwebs obliged and used the experience as a try-out.

“These spaces are very acoustically exciting in all sorts of different ways,” says Andy.

“Sound does travel differently in an enclosed space. One thing we’ve learned is that when you get 50 or 60 bodies in there, the acoustic changes quite a bit.”

It isn’t only the acoustic that’s unconventional. Reflecting on the Victoria Tunnel performance, Andy paints a picture of an orchestra seated in a long line, as if on a train, with the audience similarly arranged.

“It turned out to be a very different experience for audience members depending on where they were but everyone enjoyed it and seemed to think it was worthwhile,” says Andy.

“We have certainly learned a lot. We are probably the only orchestra in existence that has a large supply of hard hats.”

If it tops that league then it might also top another, the seemingly casual nature of its approach to concerts. Andy says that, by “a strange process of alchemy”, the right number of musicians always turns up, although none is obliged to do so.

Andy says there are eight Cobweb groups, from Northumberland, across to Carlisle and down as far as York, with 600 players on the books.

“It’s a sort of collective. We have all these people who are very enthusiastic and interested in what we do and they bring themselves to every performance.”

A mixed bag of keen amateurs and retired professionals, some have expertise in other fields, which can come in handy.

It was an ex-engineer who invented Andy’s special conductor’s baton which lights up when he flicks a switch. He calls it his light sabre.

The orchestra is in action on February 7 at Sage Gateshead with a day dedicated to the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. An afternoon of rehearsal will climax in a performance with Sage general director Anthony Sargent conducting.

If you want something to measure that performance against, the professionals of Royal Northern Sinfonia perform the work in Sage’s Hall One on Thursday with Ainars Rubikis conducting. It promises to be a good gig. But could they do it underground?


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