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J.S. Bach, Cello Suites 1–6, BWV1007 – 10012, Jian Wang (cello), Hall 2, The Sage, Gateshead, 14 , 15, 16.10 .2005 (JP).


These were more promotional tour concerts from the Sage, Gateshead. Following the success of his recording of the Bach cello suites for DGG, the Chinese Cellist, Jian Wang gave three late night concerts on consecutive nights where two suites were played in each, before a small, but extremely enthusiastic audience. These concerts were in the “Late Mix” series, which used to be held in a local church, before the Sage Concert Halls were completed. In the earlier series a small but regular audience had been built up, and it looked very much as though the same was happening in the Sage.


On the evening of the first concert, consisting of the Suites 1 and 4, I found the car park almost totally deserted, which did not bode particularly well. My faith in the keen music lovers of Tyneside should not have been questioned however, as the hall began to fill up only ten minutes or so before the start. Earlier in the day, HM The Queen had officially opened The Sage complex, so the Bach concert was an excellent baptism for the new centre.


The Sage Gateshead, is a stunning £70 million home for live music consisting of two performance spaces of acoustic excellence together with the Northern Rock Foundation Hall for rehearsal performance, a twenty-five room Music Education Centre, ExploreMusic (a music information resource centre in the Joan and Margaret Halbert Space). There is also the Barbour Room, (a sunny entertainment room), plus studios, bars, a café and a brasserie are present for public use. The centre's spectacular concourse has river views of the Tyne and Gateshead Millennium Bridges, the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Newcastle and Gateshead Quays.


The architecture is exciting and dramatic and the Sage is the first building for the performing arts designed by Foster and Partners, one of this century’s most admired architectural practices. The building is a large steel and glass structure, that has been welcomed by the local population despite having been described by some as 'an enormous slug.' It lies on the south bank of the Tyne, adding to the character of Gateshead, which has been so changed by the Gateshead and Newcastle City Councils over the past 5 to 10 years. The changes seem to have paid of however, since both cities have recorded increased numbers of tourists to the area, primarily because of the riverbank's re-generation.


The largest hall in the complex (Hall 1) is a 1700 seat concert hall where all major events such as orchestral and pop concerts are held. Hall 2 (the location of the current concerts) is a 400 seat, ten-sided hall, fitted out with what looks like sophisticated Meccano furniture, which despite looking austere is surprisingly comfortable. Unlike Hall 1 where the décor is of light wood and stainless steel, Hall 2 is predominantly decorated in black and deep red, and on entry feels somewhat like a cavern.


To add to this effect, the management have obviously thought that the environment would be enhanced by having a steam generator belching over the platform, creating quite bizarre conditions around the playing space and it is because of the steam that the nature of the furniture comes into its own. The Hall is designed for small events, and allows the performing space to be modified to suit. With Jian Wang’s three concerts, a simple stage was all that was required, equipped with nothing more than a seat for the soloist.


On the first night, when Suites 1 and 4 were played, the steamy billows were of no consequence to our soloist, as he played the entire concert with eyes firmly shut apart from one or two downward glances at his instrument between the movements. And what movements these were! Everyone present was immediately able to understand at first hand, why Jian's recordings of the Bach Cello Suites have been receivedso positively. He has a highly expert technique on his instrument, which was appreciated greatly by all who were there. The cello tone was glorious, perhaps not quite so expansive as Paul Tortelier's, but warm and secure, with an absolute minimum of extraneous instrumental noise which so often mars recitals such as this.


As an encore, Jian Wang played a piece called “Reflection of the Moon in the River” by a Chinese composer whose name I couldn't catch. Apparently born illegitimately of a farm girl and a Monk. Brought up by the strange couple until the demise of his mother when he was eight, the child moved into the monastery, to be nurtured by his father until he died when the child was eleven. Turned out on to the street, the child then used the skills passed on to him by his parents to play music streets. More tragedy struck him, when he became blind although he continued to play for his own amusement and for sustenance. In the 1940s, when he was of advanced years, the composer was noticed by the Chinese Government and his musical works were recorded for posterity. Jian Wang obviously loved this piece, transcribed now for solo cello, and his encore was received very positively by the audience. It is one of those pieces that starts gently with a distinctive and plaintive melody repeated over and over, to which embellishments are added incrementally. After a passionate climax, the piece dies away into a mood of consolation.


On the second night, the car park was full – doubtless due to the Nils Lofgren concert in Hall 1 - but attendance at the Bach concert was as just good as it had been for the first concert. The eaxtraordinary steam machine was left running this time, until only minutes before the performance began, which meant that the man intoducing the performance almost stumbled into the first row.


Nothing was remotely foggy about Jian Wang's playing however. We had Suites 2 and 6, once again superbly played with secure rhythms and tone, eliciting a second very keen response from listeners. If anything, our soloist seemed more relaxed on the second evening perhaps as a result of the warm response he had recived the evening before. Almost apologetically, he played this first night encore once again on with similarr approval by is audience.


Sunday evening, brought Suites 3 and 5, this time with a Bach encore. While this was understandable, I thought it nevertheless a pity, since I had been quite looking forward to hearing “Reflection of the Moon in the River” for a third time. The soloist appeared to be even further relaxed, probably as a result of North Eastern hospitality combined with his first two successes, and both suites went superbly well with the hurdy gurdy effect of the finale to the third being played as well as I have ever heard it. Jian Wang also has a very considerable gift in his armoury – the ability to play long diminuendos - such as those that end the Sarabandes - with perfect control and intonation. His understanding of the suites' dance rhythms was also impressive, causing many in the audience to tap their feet in time.


More rapturous applause was the well-deserved result, and given the relatively small size of the audience, the stamping, cheering and clapping put most London Promenaders to shame. These were superb, uplifting concerts in spite of their misty introductions.

John Phillips


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