One of the region’s most effervescent music festivals returns with what appears to be a more sombre theme than usual. Northern Chords is casting its collective mind back 100 years with a programme entitled 1914: Music from a Changing World.
According to festival director and founder Jonathan Bloxham, all the music performed in this sixth annual festival will be by composers who were alive in that momentous year.
This promises a mixed bunch including the Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 to 1931), the Frenchman Francis Poulenc (1899 to 1963), the American George Gershwin (1898 to 1937), the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 to 1975) and the Englishman, who nevertheless considered himself an outsider, Sir Edward Elgar (1857 to 1934).
The First World War impacted on all of them in different ways, as it did for everyone alive at that time.
But it is clear from a glance at the programme that not everything we hear will be an overt response to the war which, in any case, at first prompted feelings of excitement and even euphoria across Europe... the ‘war fever’ you might remember from school history lessons.
John Cage, the minimalist American composer, was just two when the First World War broke out and his compatriot Samuel Barber just a couple of years older. Both feature in the festival but there’s no suggestion the global conflict shaped their musical development directly, although they were products of a world changed by war.
Barber’s famously elegiac Adagio for Strings, which was performed for the first time in 1938, captures and engenders a mood of sombre commemoration whatever the occasion.
A piece that can be linked directly to the First World War is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.
The composer, born in Gloucestershire, was 41 when the war broke out but chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps and later served as an officer in an artillery unit, demonstrating great courage under fire which damaged his hearing.
His famous piece, to feature with Adagio for Strings and Fauré’s Requiem in a soul-stirring concert at St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle, was inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith and originally composed for violin and piano in 1914 (although it had to wait until 1920 for its first performance and the following year was re-scored for violin and orchestra).
The story goes that the composer was on holiday in Margate on the day war broke out and was making some notes as ships were engaged in exercises off the coast. A small boy, taking him for a spy, informed a policeman and he was arrested.
The Lark Ascending, with its soaring, fluttering melody, stands as a symbol of the English countryside and all that we stand to lose in a time of war.
The Northern Chords concerts this year are as follows:
:: Midnight in Paris, Hall Two, Sage Gateshead, May 26 (7.30pm) – Ysaÿe, Poulenc, Ravel, Chausson;
:: Russia, Durham Cathedral (May 27, 7.30pm – Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov;
:: A Requiem, Newcastle Cathedral (May 28, 7.30pm) – Elgar, Vaugahn Williams, Finzi, Barber, Fauré;
:: Music on Jewish Themes, St Andrew’s Church, Corbridge (May 29, 8pm) – Osvaldo Golijov and others;
:: Summertime in the USA, Hall Two, Sage Gateshead (May 30, 7.30pm with a concourse event at 6.30pm) – Gershwin, Ives, Cage, Weill, Korngold.
There’s a taster to all of this, and something a little different, on May 23 at Sage Gateshead. The Late Show, starting at 10pm, is a classical club night featuring DJ sets from NonClassical, the London club night and record label which has been fuelling this new scene.
The line-up of Northern Chords performers is, once again, drawn from Gateshead-born Jonathan Bloxham’s network of highly talented musician friends.
Jonathan and his cello will be much to the fore, notably as a vital element of The Busch Ensemble which also features Mathieu van Bellen (violin) and Omri Epstein (piano). They have dazzled us before and no doubt will do so again. The ensemble, founded in 2012, has its first US tour coming up next year so is going places in more ways than one.
Tickets for all Northern Chords concerts can be bought from the box office at Sage Gateshead: 0191 443 4661 or www.sagegateshead.com Also check Facebook (www.facebook.com/northernchords) or Twitter (@ncfestival).