Ten years after the opening of the Sage Gateshead, Graeme Whitfield recalls good times spent there and asks what the £70m music centre has meant to the North East.
Close your eyes and try to recall the Gateshead riverside before the Sage Gateshead was built.
Try too to remember what the river looked like before the Millennium Bridge was put into position or the Baltic turned from an empty flour mill into a flashy art gallery. All three are now landmarks that are fixed in the public consciousness, all coming from a similar period that changed the way Tyneside looked and – to a greater or lesser extent – the way it felt about itself.
Today the Sage celebrates its 10th birthday (four years after the Millennium Bridge and two after the Baltic), with a year of celebrations planned to both mark its first decade and look forward to a future under new director Abigail Pogson, appointed on Monday to replace the departing Antony Sargent.
It has been 10 years of contrasts. The Sage has hosted both Billy Bragg and Nigel Farage, the Royal Northern Sinfonia and auditions (some of them particularly unmusical) for the X Factor.
I counted myself already a veteran of the Tyneside music scene before a whizzy, multi-million pound music centre on the banks of the Tyne was even thought of.
My gigging history begins at a half-empty City Hall in Newcastle in 1976, where my parents took me (as a four-year-old) to see The Wurzels (and excellent they were too, if memory serves). As I got older and bolder I returned to the City Hall many times, with one particularly memorable week in 1989 where I saw Elvis Costello and REM in the space of three days.
The much-missed Riverside allowed me to watch earnest young men in band T-shirts play morose music to an audience of earnest young men in band T-shirts. You always knew you’d been to a good gig there if your ears were still ringing two days later and the sweat was dripping from the ceiling. Also gone is the Mayfair (and its sticky carpet), while I am now much too old to go to dingy rooms at the students’ unions at Newcastle’s two universities.
But when The Sage opened in 2004, it was clear this was something special. The views from the bar alone, across the Tyne to Newcastle’s magnificent waterfront, were worth a visit, even if you never heard a note of music.
Then there was Hall One, a treat for the eyes almost as much as the ears, and a string of fantastic gigs that I have enjoyed over the years: regular visits from the aforementioned Costello and Bragg, Nick Cave (billed as an acoustic gig but making a fantastic amount of noise from a three-piece band), Randy Newman reminiscing about being told about a much less pleasant Tyneside in the 1960s by the Animals’ Alan Price.
My most recent visit was probably the best: the Pet Shop Boys played there for two nights in September and put on a stunning show that made brilliant use of Hall One’s special space and got an audience of mostly middle-aged music fans out of their comfortable seats to dance like it was 1999.
Away from music, the Sage has been a backdrop for Spencer Tunick photographs featuring hundreds of nude Geordies, plus a conference venue that has brought to Tyneside all the major political parties, doctors from around the world and many other business guests that have put millions of pounds into the local economy.
The role the Sage has played has been hailed by Sarah Stewart, chief executive of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative.
She said: “What has been so important has been how the Sage has enhanced the image and reputation of Newcastle and Gateshead, the whole part it has played in putting us on the map for what we’ve done with our cultural regeneration. It underpinned the whole view that this is a place where things happen and that iconic riverfront is now recognised wherever you go.
“It’s helped us to project a much more positive image of Gateshead and the wider region and that helps us to attract people to come and visit, which is important for the visitor economy.
“We also have a lot of engagement with the Sage as a conference venue. It’s hosted all the major spring party conferences to the area which is great in terms of bringing major influencers to the region. We’ve got the National Tourism Awards coming next May which is another chance for us to sell the region.”
Designed by Foster and Partners and costing £70m to build, the Sage boasts two halls (featuring seats for 1,700 and 400 people respectively), with a 25-room education centre in the basement. It provided a home for the Northern Sinfonia (later to get Royal approval) and Folkworks, with an education and outreach programme that has taken music into some of the most deprived parts of the North East.
Now the Sage is looking to its future, starting with a 10th party tonight that will see performances from the Sinfonia, several of its youth music ensembles and a multi-media performance by Novello Award-winning composer Jonathan Dove and the film director Philip Shotton.
Next year will see Sting bringing his Broadway musical The Last Ship to the Sage for its only UK performance while the next few weeks will see a celebration of much of what the venue has always been about: great music, young people and being a voice for the North East.
Paul Smith, Maximo Park:
We were the first band to headline a night at the Sage when it was the acoustic testing gigs. Everybody had blue plastic bags on their feet before the building had opened.
We played Hall Two, then went off to play another gig at the Head of Steam, and then went back to ‘headline’ in Hall One - even though it was all free tickets - we couldn’t have headlined at that point.
Everybody was just staring at us. We’d recorded our album and were just starting to tour. I think we’d had one single out, Apply Some Pressure.
We had 30 or 40 hard core fans down the front in Hall Two and then in Hall One it was just filled with people who had applied for free tickets for the opening weekend.
Looking back I would have been gutted if I hadn’t been asked to be involved. I think it’s such a great beacon for music in the region. It’s got an amazing international reputation.
Rob Barnes, classical music critic:
So many memorable occasions over 10 years, but for drama, the finest music, thrilling individual and choral performances, a November 2009 presentation in Hall One of Handel’s penultimate oratorio Theodora tops my list.
It was an unusual and innovative production, staged in minimal fashion where oratorios usually aren’t, and with a modern US Army setting rather than Ancient Rome. Northern Sinfonia was positioned to one side of the stage and their chorus behind semi-translucent drapes at the back. This was our orchestra playing great Baroque music from the heart, and the Sinfonia Chorus singing with two hats on - as devout Christians and as zealous pagans.
The music was both dramatic and exquisite – Handel rated it as good as anything he’d written, including Messiah. The choruses are masterpieces, and with world-renowned soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Iestyn Davies featured in lead roles, it proved to be an unforgettable performance. There have only been two occasions where a bike has been ridden on stage in Hall One, and this was one of them.
Sarah Stewart, NewcastleGateshead Initiative:
There’s something wonderful about sitting outside on the raised bank during the Americana festival on a beautiful sunny day and watching people stream in and out of the building.
The Sage being the backdrop for the Great North Run Million event in September was also special, but I’ll always remember the first time I heard the Northern Sinfonia play in the main concert hall. The quality of the sound was amazing.