The annual Northern Chords festival is famous for innovation and you won’t be able to knock its opening 2015 concert on that score.
Marking the culmination of a Northern Chords community project called 100 Faces of Gateshead, it will feature 100 volunteers from the borough – each equipped with a clockwork metronome.
The highlight of the concert will be a performance – if it can be so called – of a piece called Symphony for 100 Metronomes, or Poéme symphonique, by György Ligeti.
The piece, dating from 1962, involves 100 people with a metronome pre-set at a different speed.
On a signal from the conductor, all the metronomes will be set off together and will gradually run down at different rates... ending, according to the Northern Chords people, “with one solitary survivor poignantly breathing its last”.
Chief among those Northern Chords people is Jonathan Bloxham, the cellist and aspiring conductor from Gateshead who established the festival with the idea of bringing first-rate young musicians back to the area where he grew up and received an excellent grounding in music.
But the concert which will begin the seventh annual festival on May 24 also has a photographic element.
Jonathan and his friend Kaupo Kikkas, an award-winning Estonian photographer, called for 100 volunteers from Gateshead who would not only operate a metronome but pose for a photographic portrait.
The black and white portraits will feature in an exhibition at Sage Gateshead coinciding with the concert and also in a coffee table book which will be launched on the day.
“Kaupo is a good friend and has been an inspiration to me through his artform,” explains Jonathan.
“We were discussing equality one day and we came up with this project as a way of highlighting the idea of everyone being equal.
“It is a real community project and we have had a great response from all sorts of different people including students, teachers, a pathologist – a real cross-section of society. They’ve all been photographed and they’ll all be performing with a metronome.”
The hour-long concert in the Sage’s big Hall One will also feature performances by Jonathan, one of Britain’s best young cellists, and his friend Ben Johnson, the accomplished tenor.
And here’s another innovation – it will be free. Well, sort of. “We’re asking people to pay what they think it’s worth on their way out,” says Jonathan, adding that as far as he is aware this is the first time this has happened at Sage Gateshead.
“We are really hoping to attract people who wouldn’t normally come to a classical music concert. Some of them, of course, will be performing on those metronomes.”
György Ligeti (1923-2006) was an avant-garde composer who experimented with electronic music in the 1950s and ruffled feathers among traditionalists.
Born in Romania to a Hungarian Jewish family, he was sent to a labour camp during the Second World War and lost close family members in Nazi concentration camps.
He returned to his music studies in Budapest after the war but fled from Hungary after the 1956 uprising was quashed by the Soviet army. Moving to Austria and Germany, he met and was influenced by like-minded composers.
Not everyone was bowled over by his Poéme symphonique but it could make for a memorable night at Sage Gateshead. “I’m pretty sure it has never been performed in the North East before,” says Jonathan.
But one small obstacle still needs to be overcome before the concert.
“We need 100 wind up metronomes and we have about 20,” says the man whose good idea this was. “If anyone has got one we can borrow, I would be grateful if they could tweet us (@100FacesUK).”
Tickets for all this year’s Northern Chords concerts can be bought from the Sage Gateshead box office at www.sagegateshead.com or 0191 4434661. Details of the festival will appear soon at www.northernchords.com and there’s a special website for the opening concert – www.100faces.uk