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Review: Royal Northern Sinfonia with Julian Bliss, Sage Gateshead

Conductor Mario Venzago and clarinetist Julian Bliss contribute to a memorable concert in Sage's Hall One

Clarinettist Julian Bliss
Clarinettist Julian Bliss

This Hall One concert brought three works from across the ages of music, a fine guest soloist and a conducting masterclass.

Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen Suite served as a reminder that there isn’t enough 17th Century music performed at the venue.

To hear any work by arguably England’s finest composer is a gift. The score for this piece was redicovered in the early 20th Century, having been lost since shortly after Purcell’s death in 1695.

The orchestra was set out in a traditional Baroque grouping with the smaller strings on either side of the conductor and the cello and wind sections to the back.

Interestingly they held this formation for the entire evening, with no effect on the overall sound balance.

The performance was bright and clean, befitting the general tone of its original setting as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The eight elements in the piece cover all the classic elements of early Baroque styling, with all parts of the orchestra working together beautifully.

The region’s clarinet enthusiasts have had a great few days – Emma Johnson in Durham on Sunday and now Julian Bliss making his second appearance in nine months in Gateshead.

He’s a fine young player and always a delight to hear.

Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, a tricky and unsettling piece, was written in 1928 as a character sketch of the Copenhagen Wind Quartet’s clarinettist, who had a reputation for being moody and disagreeable.

Bliss, on top of his game, rose to the occasion with great skill and versatility, especially in the passages of gnawing conflict between clarinet and snare drum, finely played by Graham Johns.

The second half belonged to Brahms’ 2nd Symphony. His first had taken him 15 years to write but this one took a few months in1877. It showed in its fluency and generally sunny tone, although some darker undertones provide contrast.

The final movement, a thrilling example of Brahms’ skill in writing for orchestra, provides the abiding memory of the work.

But the performance of the evening for me was that of the vastly experienced Swiss conductor, Mario Venzago.

He would make a great leader in any walk of life with his obvious commitment, enthusiasm, good nature and personal engagements with his musicians.

He doesn’t need to speak to his audience because his actions speak volumes. At the end he made an effort to shake hands with every player on stage.

Anyone thinking of a career in conducting would do well to study his fine example.

Rob Barnes


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