AN audio-visual attraction involving 50 seagoing vessels, three brass bands and a foghorn was never going to be all plain sailing.
But Foghorn Requiem was deemed a triumph as thousands lined the grassy cliffs at Whitburn, South Tyneside, on Saturday under a mostly blue sky.
Composer Orlando Gough wrote the 50-minute piece to mark the passing of the Souter Lighthouse foghorn’s sound from our coastline as satellite technology takes over.
As a flotilla of small ships and a towering DFDS ferry moved into position, he said there had been some “hairy” moments getting the technology right.
“I don’t think there’s any point in denying that because there was always a risk. But things seem to be slotting into place at the last minute. I’m very much enjoying being here because the event so far is beautiful with everyone watching and the ships mustering.
“The piece is about feeling nostalgic but I think it will be a reminder to people that they have got somewhere really special on their doorstep.”
Stephen Malcolm, conductor of the massed brass bands of Felling, Westoe and NASUWT Riverside, from Chester-le-Street, said: “We had two rehearsals and they went very well.
“Whatever happens, the band will just follow the stick.”
It was the brass players who began things, processing along the cliffs to a stage between lighthouse and sea.
A lone cornet player performed a plaintive solo from the top of the lighthouse and then the ships joined in. Fourteen of them carried sirens tuned to a different note and programmed to perform a computerised score.
As the band got into its swing, the ships – which also included Port of Tyne dredger Sir Bobby Robson, search and safety vessels, historic fishing boats and training ship James Cook with Blue Peter presenter Barney Harwood aboard – began to harmonise with it.
The crowd fell silent – until the first of six mighty blasts of the foghorn caused shock and awe.
Most people jumped. Laughter and curses momentarily drowned the music.
Dozens of dogs whirled or cringed. As the piece neared its end the brass players moved into the crowd and faced the sea.
The last note fell to the foghorn, a long roar which faded and died as its air supply was allowed to run out – as never happened when it was alerting seafarers to the rocks.
Loud applause broke out and both band and composer took a bow.
Estimates put the crowd at 5,000 to 10,000. Among them, it was said, were people who had driven from London and even flown from France.
The Mayor of South Tyneside, Ernest Gibson, said: “It was fantastic. It has brought the community together. A lot of work went into it and children have also been involved, making an exhibition at the Customs House. Hopefully it will put South Tyneside and its maritime tradition back on the map.”
Dorothy Greenwell, from Spennymoor, who was with friend Jeff Astley, from near Darlington, said: “We heard about it on the radio and had to get up here.
“I feared it would be a flop but when the band struck up it was fantastic.” Her friend said: “We didn’t know what to expect but it was certainly impressive.”
Newcastle friends David Clark, Laura Ellis and Katy McGeoghegan came for the foghorn.
“We like coming here anyway but we’ve never heard it close up,” said Laura. David said: “I thought it worked really well. It was a great composition.”
Artists Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway had the idea for the piece which was commissioned by South Tyneside Council and the National Trust for the Festival of the North East.
Relieved producer Richard Hollinshead said he had been up all night making last-minute preparations and arrived just as the performance started because of a glitch involving one of the sirens.
So what next? “I’m thinking of doing something involving trains,” he said. “Seriously!”