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Seen and Heard Concert Review

 
Bartok, Miraculous Mandarin Ballet Suite, Mahler No. 7 Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Hall 1, The Sage, Gateshead, 4.11 2005 (JP)

 

The Sage was filled with wonderful sounds on Friday evening. Visiting the new hall for the first time, the Philharmonia, surely one of the capital’s best orchestras, was on good form for one of the more enigmatic of Mahler’s nine (or ten) symphonies. The concert was preceded with a little bit of comedy provided by leader Bradley Creswick, who is also leader of the Newcastle based Northern Sinfonia. With a bravado usually absent in leaders of symphony orchestras, he waved fondly to what must have seemed to him to be his adoring fans. “Hey, look at me folks," he seemed to be saying, "It's a local lad leading the Philharmonia." The audience was delighted.

Once the concert was under way, we were treated to a high-class evening of music from an orchestra well able to play these most complex scores with the utmost virtuosity. The Philharmonia is well known for its fullness of tone, and the Sage responded well to it, with the hall's superb acoustic coping easily with the sheer volume of sound produced. Brass and woodwinds were outstanding, with the lower strings providing a solid base for the sound. If I had one criticism, it was to do with the upper strings, in former years one of the glories of this band. Their tone was just not 'there' in the way that it used to be, and it was a shame that this imbalance in the sound was so marked.

Particular mention must be made of Andrew Smith, the orchestra’s timpanist, surely one of the finest in London, if not a much greater area. The opening of the last movement of the Mahler was rhythmically extremely secure under his lead. His playing is absolutely superb, and the Philharmonia is extremely fortunate to have his skills at its disposal.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, one of Finland’s best known young(ish) conductors had full authority over both scores, and his interpretation could hardly be faulted, apart from slight but by no means off-putting modifications (both faster and slower) to Mahler's basic tempi. He received a very positive response from the audience, smaller in number than I might have expected given that the orchestra and conductor was visiting the area for the first time in many years.

The audience size set me thinking about the strategy currently applied at the Sage for its large orchestral concerts, because in a sense there doesn’t seem to be one. The lion’s share of classical concerts here is being given by the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra, which has expanded from its former role as a strict chamber orchestra into a slightly larger ensemble for bigger works. The current season is made up of 20 of their concerts at roughly a weekly frequency.

Some of the larger concerts are given by visiting orchestras, but there are only 8 of these this season made up by the Vienna Philharmonic (1), the Philharmonia (1), the Budapest Festival Orchestra (1), Gothenburg's Symphony Orchestra (1) and the Kirov (4). As a total this isn't too bad a figure, until you discover that the Philharmonia and Budapest concerts are less than a week apart, and the four Kirov concerts are on consecutive days, with a gap of two days in the middle. Then it starts to look a little strange particularly because the cost of attending the Vienna Philharmonic concert was actually higher at the Sage than for a similar concert in London, and a season ticket requires attendance at a minimum of 12 concerts. As a result, fans of the visiting orchestras have to pay full price even when ordering tickets for every performance in the visitors' programme.

Given that the Sage is a new concert venue, I would have thought that bums on seats would be one of its primary concerns. Another might usefully be the content of programming and we might well ask why the initial concerts contained such a surfeit of music by Tippett. I know that this is his centenary year, but when concert goers around you are saying things like “Oh, no, not more b***** Tippet”, one can easily believe that this is one reason why the hall has not yet established a devoted audience willing to turn up on a regular basis.

Still, enough negativity. This concert was a superb event, and I hope that next week’s visit be the Budapest Festival orchestra will be another scorcher. This one certainly was.


John Phillips



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)