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Review: John Wilson's Sunday Afternoons - Russian Fantasy, Sage Gateshead

Gateshead-born conductor John Wilson conducted the resident orchestra in a scintillating concert at Sage Gateshead

CHRIS CHRISTODOULOU Gateshead-born conductor John Wilson
Gateshead-born conductor John Wilson

by Rob Barnes

We have become used to seeing conductor John Wilson presenting MGM and other 20th Century film and theatre music at the Proms and elsewhere, but he returned in triumph to his native Gateshead to conduct Royal Northern Sinfonia in a glorious programme of late 19th and early 20th Century Russian music in the first of a series of Sunday afternoon concerts.

His public were out in force to welcome him back to Hall One.

Alexander Borodin, a chemist by profession, died having written only sketches for the opera Prince Igor, but fellow composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov brought about a performance version and we were treated to its clean, tuneful and energetic overture as the concert opener.

Wilson had the orchestra straight into its stride with telling contributions from around the stage, notably the strings and brass.

Aged just 27, guest pianist Denis Kozhukhin has taken the music world by storm. He didn’t disappoint here, rapt as he was in the 24 variations of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.

This work, one of classical music’s most popular pieces, nevertheless calls for minute attention to detail and timing between soloist and orchestra. Both were deliverd here.

The second half brought no let-up in quality and panache.

Tchaikovsky wrote the full score for his ballet Sleeping Beauty and planned a ‘best-of’ suite which could be performed as a concert piece.

He could never decide which were the best - “everything seems equally good” - and died before realising his project. Others took it on, however, and the five-part suite was born.

CHRIS CHRISTODOULOU Gateshead-born conductor John Wilson
Gateshead-born conductor John Wilson

Uniformly delightful and vital, this provided a good opportunity for individual orchestra members to show their skills – a special mention for Lucy Wakeford on the harp.

Anatoly Liadov never achieved the output or recognition of fellow composers but his restrained, colourful tone poem, The Enchanted Lake, brought balance to the programme and was immensely likeable in all respects.

The finale brought a real tour de force, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnole.

This is a fine orchestral composition, giving virtually all sections and individuals their moment in the Spanish sun – from Bradley Creswick’s solo violin to the castanets from among the percussion. The string section even has to imitate guitar playing, adding to the joy and spirit of the piece.

From the smiles on stage, it was obvious this was one piece everyone loved playing. But the bond between conductor and orchestra extends to all sections of the auditorium.

John Wilson is a natural communicator, engaging with his audience and introducing the music in a droll, down-to-earth way. It’s no surprise that tickets for his three concerts here are already scarce.


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