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Play about Charles Avison takes to the stage in Gateshead

A first play about Charles Avison is set to introduce more people to the life and work of a notable composer and Geordie as David Whetstone reports

Sue Hedworth, from Ovington who is putting on a concert of her brother's music
Sue Hedworth, from Ovington, who has written a play about Charles Avison

One of the things most frequently said of Charles Avison is that not a great deal is known about his life.

Not very long ago this was true but the Newcastle-born composer, a significant figure in his home city in the 18th Century, has been gathering fans apace.

Thanks to them, Avison can no longer be passed off as one of history’s shrinking violets.

Gordon Dixon founded the Avison Ensemble to familiarise modern audiences with his work, a first biography came out in 2009 – The Ingenious Mr Avison, co-authored by David Hughes, Roz Southey and Margaret Maddison – and now there’s a play.

Mostra, billed as “a play with live music about our very own 18th Century Newcastle composer”, is to be performed tomorrow in Gateshead.

It was written by Sue Saunders, just the latest to be inspired by Avison’s creative endeavours, and she says she was moved to put pen to paper after talking to the actor Gordon Russell, a stalwart of the People’s Theatre where Sue has had work staged in the past.

She recalls: “I’ve known Gordon for some years through our People’s association and as I was chatting to him one day about various things, I found he was very keen on Charles Avison.

“He’d bought this book which was Avison’s essay of musical expression which he found fascinating. It was one of the first books which philosophised about the nature of music.”

This was the composer’s Essay on Musical Expression in which he had had the temerity – or the confidence – to criticise the music of Handel which was very popular in England at the time. “Anyway,” says Sue, “I was chatting to Gordon and he said he would very much like to play the part of Charles Avison.”

If, that was, the part of Charles Avison should exist in any play available.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next. The short of it is that a play does now exist, courtesy of Sue whose past endeavours include a drama about Dorothy Wordsworth.

Gordon, whose past triumphs include Chekhov’s famous one-acter On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco and the role of a famous clown in Justin Butcher’s hit play Scaramouche Jones, gets his wish, donning the mantle of arguably the greatest musician every to entertain an audience on Tyneside.

Sue, now as well versed in the life of Avison as it is possible to be, tells me how she threw herself into the research in the archives of Newcastle University and the venerable Lit & Phil.

She read the biography and she immersed herself in Avison’s own landmark volume from which she gleaned the term – ‘mostra’ – which would eventually give her the title of her play.

She found that in Avison’s day – and he lived from 1709-77 – there were very few professional musicians around.

The old town waits, professional players who had served their municipal masters since medieval times, were all being paid off and it was the era of the gentleman amateur.

“Or they were people like Avison who had to earn their money in all sorts of ways. Court patronage was slowly dying the death and the way music was funded was changing.

“Avison was famous for putting on the first subscription concerts in Newcastle. The very first concerts he put on were held in the Turk’s Head Hotel and they were more like buskers’ nights.”

It has been established that Avison was baptised at St John’s Church in Newcastle and returned there as a young man in 1735 to become its organist.

He had had a spell in London studying music under Francesco Geminiani, an Italian vioinist, composer and music theorist, but, like many Geordies before and since, he found the pull of Tyneside too great to resist.

Offers to leave the city and take up prestigious positions came his way in later life but he resisted them, staying in Newcastle.

In the city he went on to becme organist at what is now St Nicholas’ Cathedral and further his musical career his own way.

While he is remembered for his Essay on Musical Expression, his music – largely due to the Avison Ensemble – also has its fans. Avison composed 12 Baroque concerti grossi which, the experts say, bear the hallmarks of his studies with Geminiani.

A measure of his fame is that he was one of the people chosen by the writer Robert Browning to figure in his Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day. Writing in the 19th Century, Browning was clearly a fan.

Sue was well placed to tackle a subject like Avison. She has had a close association with music through her late brother, Michael Smith, who was a professional viola player and much inspired by the poet William Wordsworth whose epic poem The Prelude he set to music.

He died in 2009, shortly after a performance of his Prelude-inspired oratorio in Ryton.

Sue, who lives at Ovington in Northumberland, then organised three concerts in his memory – in Ambleside, Newcastle and Hexham – introducing audiences to his music which she set alongside that of renowned English composers.

Gordon Russell, says Sue, was a great supporter of those concerts and it was he who insisted that live music be part of the Avison play.

“He was determined to have live music even though there are recordings of Avison’s music available,” says Sue who doesn’t sound as if she resisted too hard.

She turned to her sister-in-law and Michael’s widow, violinist Loeki Poncim, whose Damiate Quartet will provide the live musical element of Mostra while also taking the opportunity to perform Michael’s Quartet in A.

Reflecting on the reasearching and writing of the Avison play, Sue says: “It is almost as if we have been privileged to eavesdrop on his musings.

“Avison took his craft seriously, and was of a reflective and philosophical bent, but he never lost his ability to laugh at himself and take an intelligent and compassionate interest in the thriving town (the fourth largest in England) he chose to live in more or less all of his life, and which he helped to transform into a cultural centre.”

As a teaser, she adds: “What moved this man, author of more or less the first musical treatise written in England, as well as numerous concerti grossi and harpsichord sonatas?”

The answer will emerge, presumably, in Mostra which is taking place at 7.30pm tomorrow in St Mary’s Heritage Centre, Gateshead, after a first performance this week in Holland where Michael lived.

Tickets for the play, directed by Hugh Keegan, cost £9 and can be bought on the door – or tel. 0191 2814236.


David Whetstone
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