AS LAST year drew to a close in the grip of an old-fashioned winter freeze, an extraordinary gig took place at The Sage Gateshead to mark its fifth anniversary.
People risked life and limb to get there, slithering on compacted ice. Singer Thea Gilmore spent all day driving slowly up from Southampton to make the gig, billed as Kathryn Tickell’s Surprise Party.
What a surprise it was! A wonderful surprise. There was a grizzled bloke called Sting there and Thea was in fine form after her epic blizzard adventure. But holding it all together was Kathryn Tickell, a warm enough host to melt the ice.
She charmed and entertained all of us and behind her for many of the invigorating numbers were members (past and present) of Folkestra, the folk orchestra she has nurtured for years.
At one point there were 40 of these young musicians on stage, evidence of a fine folk music legacy.
Days after this most enjoyable of concerts, I caught a BBC TV documentary called Sting’s Winter Songbook. There were Kathryn and Sting and a host of other musicians ensconced in the rock star’s Italian home (lucky chap) rehearsing the music that would become an album – If On A Winter’s Night – and the substance of another extraordinary concert in Durham Cathedral.
Here was more proof, if it were needed, that Kathryn Tickell, champion of the region’s traditional instrument, the Northumbrian pipes, is a major international figure in music.
Indeed, in an admiring aside at that Sage concert, Sting confided: "The Tickells are very popular in New York."
Brother Peter is also, you see, a fantastic musician, a fiddler par excellence. See the pair of them together, as we did on stage and on that documentary, blurred bows flying over the strings (for Kathryn’s an ace fiddler too), and you will find your feet starting to twitch.
Kathryn is the winner of the Special Award for her musicianship and her tireless dedication. Her mastery of the Northumbrian pipes, an instrument with which her name has become synonymous, is well known; perhaps less so the encouragement she gives to young musicians – like those Folkestra maestros – coming along behind.
And even by her own exacting standards, 2009 was special.
It began with the January announcement that she was to be the recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, said Kathryn was "the foremost Northumbrian pipes player, a great composer and a wonderful all-round musician".
But the award was also "for her work in music education and in putting the pipes and the music of her own part of England back among the public where it belongs, and also spreading a love of this music throughout the whole world".
In March Kathryn was presented with her medal by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Then in September, she took up her new appointment as artistic director of Folkworks, one of the organisations involved in setting up The Sage Gateshead.
The appointment had been announced months earlier when she remarked: "I have been involved with Folkworks since the very beginning, 20 years ago, and I’m totally delighted to be able to play a role in its future."
Ros Rigby, performance programme director at The Sage Gateshead and co-founder with Alistair Anderson of Folkworks, was no less delighted.
"I’ve watched Kathryn develop from being a very young performer to now being a really well-established performer with an international reputation," she said this week.
"I think, like Alistair Anderson who preceded her as artistic director, she has been very much an ambassador for the region and for the region’s own instrument, the Northumbrian pipes." Looking in The Journal’s own archives it’s clear that Kathryn has been newsworthy for most of her life.
We first encounter her, aged 16, being appointed the Lord Mayor’s Piper – the revival of an ancient tradition – in a ceremony at the Mansion House in Newcastle.
In 1987 she told an interviewer: "Everybody has a musical instrument. It’s just a case of finding it. I was lucky because I just picked up a set of Northumbrian pipes when I was about 10 and it came easier to me than a lot of other people.
"If I’d come from a brass band family and there had been a trumpet lying around, I could just as easily have picked that up, made a mess of it and never played again in my life."
Her pragmatism and her talent have served her – and us –well.