Royal Northern Sinfonia plays its first concert at the Sage Gateshead

TWO days after the Northern Sinfonia became the Royal Northern Sinfonia they appeared on stage at the Sage Gateshead alongside Kathryn Tickell.

THE newly renamed Royal Northern Sinfonia played its first concert at the weekend, sharing a stage with some of the region’s folk music greats and schoolchildren from Elswick in Newcastle.

One Night in Gateshead was Sage Gateshead’s main contribution to the Festival of the North East.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the orchestra’s gig. It was Kathryn Tickell’s, marking her four years as artistic director of Folkworks and the fact that the festival was her idea.

The celebrated Northumbrian piper – and no mean fiddle player – always makes audiences feel as if they’re in her front room and that characterised this wonderfully good-humoured celebration of North East culture.

The orchestra, honoured by the Queen last week, performed a succession of world premieres conducted by Clark Rundell.

Kathryn Tickell had arranged traditional North East songs for orchestral performance so we had them played as they have been for decades in pubs, clubs and parlours followed by the rich and multi-textured Royal Northern Sinfonia versions.

“This one’s for everyone who’s come with their own teeth,” said Johnny Handle, a living compendium of traditional songs.

The lullaby A-U-Hinny Burd was beautiful when Johnny sang it with his accordion and also in the orchestral version. And we can’t have heard the last of Bobby Shaftoe played by the Sage’s resident orchestra.

Our host introduced her cracking new ensemble, Kathryn Tickell and The Side, featuring herself on pipes, Amy Thatcher (accordion), Ruth Wall (harp) and Louisa Tuck, the orchestra’s principal cellist showing her versatility in the folk genre. Kathryn’s dad, Mike Tickell, sang a North East medley including Keel Row and Billy Boy, and young Newcastle singer Hannah Rickard performed Waters of Tyne.

There were words, too. Chris Connel read Porpoise Ashore by the late fishmonger-turned-playwright Tom Hadaway who, said Kathryn, used to slip her a few chips when she was passing on the way home from school in North Shields.

Skellig author David Almond raised cheers with his moving appreciation of the Geordie dialect which apparently caused outrage when it was published in a London newspaper.

The pace quickened after the interval. Street dancers joined clog dancers and the young musicians of Folkestra for a repeat of JigHop, the adrenalin-pumping music and dance routine that Kathryn put together for last year’s pre-Olympic programme in Newcastle and London’s Trafalgar Square.

But the showstoppers were the children of Hawthorn Primary School in Elswick who beautifully sang Geordie songs. The school, located in one of the region’s most deprived wards, is benefiting from In Harmony, a national programme aimed at raising aspiration and opportunity.

Based on Venezuela’s El Sistema project, which saw poor children forming the now world famous Simón Bolivar Orchestra, pupils are receiving regular classical music tuition from Royal Northern Sinfonia musicians.

It seems, as an added extra, they have also been coached by Mike Tickell in a different sort of music.

The youngsters’ charming and confident performance brought a lump to the throat and huge applause – as did this heart-warming concert.

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