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Review: A Requiem, Northern Chords, St Nicholas' Cathedral, Newcastle

The third concert in the current Northern Chords festival programme concluded with the Faure Requiem

****
St Nicholas' Cathedral, Newcastle, after the Northern Chords concert
St Nicholas' Cathedral, Newcastle, after the Northern Chords concert

This was rather more than a single requiem and much, much more than a workaday concert on a wet Wednesday.

It showed that Northern Chords, which has been staged annually in the North East since 2009, is fast approaching maturity.

At first it was a charming idea nicely executed.

Festival founder Jonathan Bloxham, wanting to give something back to the region (and specifically Gateshead’s music service that nurtured his early musical education) brought some of his highly talented musician friends to perform three concerts on Tyneside.

If that had been that, the job would have been done and those who heard the music would have been grateful. But the festival returned and keeps coming back.

It is no secret that Jonathan has had to work hard to sustain Northern Chords but charm, graft and a legion of brilliant young friends willing to travel and perform have made it possible – to say nothing of an impressive list of sponsors.

Looking at the array of talent in St Nicholas’ Cathedral, it was clear that Northern Chords is a gift that just keeps giving.

As Jonathan’s career develops, so does the festival. One day, surely, his busy schedule will bring an end to the affair... but let’s just enjoy it while we can.

The concert opened with Elgar (Serenade for Strings) and then Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, both pieces evoking the pastoral England that was to receive a rude kicking in the First World War.

This year’s festival highlights composers who were alive in 1914 and that theme was particularly fitting here with ragged regimental colours flying high above the pews.

Violinist Benjamin Baker delivered a moving, note perfect ‘Lark Ascending’ and his virtuosity was matched in the less familiar Eclogue for Strings (Gerald Finzi) by pianist Walter Delahunt.

After three English composers, an American, Samuel Barber, brought the first half to an end with his justly famous Adagio for Strings. The Northern Chords ensemble gave a brilliant rendition of this ethereal hymn to sorrow.

You could have heard a pin drop – although this venue does come with a sonorous bell which proved to be a bit of a loose cannon on the night.

After the interval the Felling Male Voice Choir and two choirs from Newcastle High School for Girls lined up behind the orchestra for a memorable performance of Fauré’s beautiful and melodic Requiem.

This brought to the fore baritone Jonathan McGovern and soprano Ruby Hughes, singing from the pulpit. Both were excellent but Hughes, a former Samling Scholar, stunned an already attentive audience into a deeper silence. What a voice! It certainly left me wanting more.

It was a concert meriting superlatives. One day, I reckon, Jonathan Bloxham, conducting here with sympathy and assurance, would make a great Royal Northern Sinfonia music director. That’s for the future. The present is already pretty good.

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