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Review: Summertime in the USA, Northern Chords, Sage Gateshead

American composers brought the curtain down on a chamber music festival full of highlights at the Sage Gateshead

The Busch Ensemble

The leading lights of Northern Chords 2014 celebrated the end of a highly successful week with a gala concert in Hall Two of music by 20th Century American composers, starting with the celebrated Samuel Barber.

In this instance he took Englishman Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach as his inspiration and afforded the audience one of the evening’s highlights, Jonathan McGovern singing from the heart in a spiritual baritone.

The choice of repertoire for the evening may have raised a few eyebrows among the traditionalists, with Charles Ives’ Halloween falling well into madcap territory.

Ives did make the point that it was written “for a Halloween party, not a nice concert”, but with its multi-layered scales moving surprisingly into the style of Mozart and on to its crash of an ending, it was much appreciated by these concert-goers.

David Bruce’s Gumboots was full of depth and yearning with some brilliantly sharp rhythmical jousting between the strings.

Then there was John Cage. Never one to hide behind convention, we were provided with the violin version of his 4’33” rather than the more commonly seen piano version. It’s called (among other things) ambient music and, of course, it hit that spot perfectly. Cage’s Telephones & Birds featured, of course, telephone noises, voices and bird sounds, including a very well received cockerel.

Normality resumed with three of the best-known movements from Gerschwin’s Porgy and Bess Suite with the three violinists, Benjamin Baker, Mathieu van Bellen and Ken Schumann, taking one each – sweet, sweet music.

The evening’s headline work was Erich Korngold’s Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano Left-Hand, and commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian concert-pianist who lost his arm in WW1.

Omri Epstein’s left hand proved to be a formidable musical weapon, playing alternately with power and sensitivity. Rare virtuosity.

The same could be said of the supporting Busch Ensemble plus Benjamin Baker, whose very real physical endeavours summed up the chutzpah and spirit of Northern Chords. Here’s to next year’s festival.

Rob Barnes


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