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Royal Northern Sinfonia opens new season in style at Sage

A sell-out audience at Sage Gateshead gave Royal Northern Sinfonia's new music director Lars Vogt a warm welcome

German pianist and conductor Lars Vogt
German pianist and conductor Lars Vogt

Officially he is still music director designate of Royal Northern Sinfonia but Lars Vogt – that’s pronounced “Foakt” – was given a warm North East welcome at Sage Gateshead at the weekend.

He took the baton for the first time since being appointed Thomas Zehetmair’s replacement to open the resident orchestra’s new season.

In the first of two concerts he will conducting 2014-15, he also launched the orchestra’s Beethoven symphony cycle during which all nine of the composer’s symphonies will be performed, more or less on a monthly basis, through until next June.

First up, perhaps to catch the last vestiges of summer, was number six, the ‘Pastoral’, which would probably figure on any list of the most popular classics with its evocations of rolling pasture, scudding clouds and trees alive with birds.

The concert, in front of a sell-out audience, was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 – hence the spinney of microphones on stage.

The BBC announcer echoed the view of a national newspaper critic who called our Royal Northern Sinfonia “the best chamber orchestra in the country”.

The performance was also dedicated to the memory of conductor and early music pioneer Frans Brüggen, a “great musician and friend of Royal Northern Sinfonia”, who died in August.

No pressure at all, then, on the new boy on the conductor’s podium.

The concert began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, written for a revival of a play by Goethe which he greatly admired. It was a short but stirring reminder of thunderous symphonic epics to come, the storms after the gently melodic Pastoral.

Then came Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with the spotlight falling on Alissa Margulis, the celebrated young German-born soloist.

This has the reputation of being technically demanding and if I say that it looked it, that’s not intended as derogatory.

The piece kicked off as it meant to go on, full of fizz and fire, and Margulis delivered a performance full of energy and confidence.

When the interval came, it was probably the audience who needed to relax.

Performing Beethoven’s symphonies one after the other is an audience-pleasing ruse guaranteed, you would imagine, to generate ticket sales in challenging times.

But that doesn’t make it a bad idea. Swelling the audience for classical music in the North East is important and you won’t do that with seasons of 20th Century minimalism.

But at Sage Gateshead they have done both and will continue to do so. The more friends the orchestra can make at home, the better.

This concert showed what can be done. The place was packed, the performances exemplary and Lars Vogt graciously responded to wave after wave of applause.

From the rear, which is the way we see him, he cuts a more compact and spring-loaded figure than the elegant Zehetmair.

But the result is still pretty good. And one of the musicians confided that he is fun to work with, music being part of life rather than life itself. This was the Zehetmair approach although the musician did confide, to my surprise, that he had been a fan of Father Ted on the TV.

We will be seeing a lot more of Lars Vogt, which is good. The next Beethoven symphony, number four, is on October 23, with John Lill also performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

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