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Northern Chords festival to mark First World War centenary

An early call for this year's Northern Chords festival brought Jonathan Bloxham and his historic cello to Gateshead. David Whetstone met them both

Jonathan Bloxham
Jonathan Bloxham

Question: what’s the best thing to come out of a wooden box? Answer: the sound made by a strings musician of Jonathan Bloxham’s calibre.

The young Whickham-born cellist, at Sage Gateshead at the weekend to launch the 2014 Northern Chords chamber music festival, turned heads with just a few strokes of the bow. So good is Jonathan that he can summon several moods and emotions at the same time, piling chord upon chord. Small wonder he and his youthful Busch Ensemble – cello, violin, piano – have been winning prizes all over the place (nine inside two years, reckons Jonathan).

To call his cello a ‘wooden box’, however, is to do a huge disservice to the instrument, its maker and its distinguished history. This is some box.

It has been in Jonathan’s possession since last May but he is certainly not the first and is unlikely to be the last to coax wonderful music from it.

The cello, worth an estimated $500,000, is one of only six attributed to Giulio Gigli, an 18th Century master craftsman based in Rome.

It dates from 1767 and Jonathan has it on loan from “a kind gentleman who lives in Basle” who takes philanthropic pleasure from hearing his treasured instruments played by young maestros.

But it begs another question: what makes a centuries-old cello better to play and to listen to than a brand new model bought from the local music shop?


Jonathan thinks about it and says: “There was no pollution in those days, so the quality of the wood is much better, and there was an emphasis on quality.

“Getting as much out there as possible wasn’t the main factor back then but brilliant craftsmanship was critical.” Jonathan, who studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School and Royal College of Music, says there are some “incredible” contemporary makers but he doesn’t deny that most young classical musicians with ambition would leap at the chance to play a piece of history.

“An instrument like this gives you a much greater colour palette which means that the option to express different emotions is greater so you can say more with your playing. All music is just the language of emotion, emotion without words. The more an instrument offers, the better.”

Jonathan adds that the Dutch violinist in the Busch Ensemble, his friend Mathieu van Bellen, also plays a historic instrument, the so-called ‘ex-Adolf Busch’ which was made in Turin in 1783 by one JB Guadagnini.

Old instruments, he explains, are often called after their most celebrated player, in this case the German violinist and composer after whom his ensemble was also named.

If you want to hear more of Jonathan and the Busch Ensemble, then the sixth Northern Chords festival, running from May 26-30, provides several opportunities. In a nutshell, more than 100 musicians will perform 20 works in eight concerts at Sage Gateshead, St Andrew’s Church, Corbridge, Newcastle Cathedral and, for the first time, Durham Cathedral.

This year’s chosen theme is 1914 and Beyond: Music from a Changing World.

“The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has enabled me to choose pieces from composers who were alive at the time, which was perhaps one of the most eclectic and diverse periods,” says Jonathan.

“Audiences will have the chance to hear works that have never been performed in the North East before and will be surprised that many of their favourites were written by composers from this period.”

One piece lined up for the Busch Ensemble is Erich Korngold’s Suite for two violins, cello and piano left hand.

It was one of several pieces written for Austrian-born concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during military service in the First World War but was determined to carry on playing.

Korngold, says Jonathan, was a pioneering figure in film music. He won an Oscar in 1938 for his score to The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.

Born into a Jewish family in what is now the Czech Republic but was then Austria-Hungary, Korngold was in Hollywood working on the Robin Hood film when the Nazis annexed Austria.

He never returned and went on to become an American citizen.

Jonathan cites the Korngold piece as something that might be appreciated by people who don’t think they like classical music but do like the cinema. It will be performed at the closing gala concert, called Summertime, with works by Gershwin, Ives, Barber and Cage.

The festival should demonstrate that the early 20th Century, as well as being a time of conflict, was also a time of great innovation and upheaval in music.

One fan of Northern Chords is Anthony Sargent, general director of Sage Gateshead, who says: “A lot of chamber music festivals have quite a serious quality to them.

“But what’s lovely about this, and it comes out of Jonathan’s personality, is that there’s a sense of fun – even a slightly mischievous quality – to everything they do. It’s a wonderful partnership for us.”

Northern Chords concerts are scheduled for Sage Gateshead (May 26 and 30), Durham Cathedral (May 27), St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle (May 28) and St Andrew’s, Corbridge (May 29). For tickets call 0191 443 4661 or visit www.sagegateshead.com . For more information on the festival, visit www.northernchords.com


David Whetstone
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