It has been said that ‘where words fail, music speaks’. It was these words, spoken by Hans Christian Andersen, which epitomised the chamber music performed at this year’s Northern Chords Festival.

Now in its sixth year, the festival adopted a 1914 – Music From a Changing World theme for the week’s concerts, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The music performed throughout the week touched on pieces by many composers from Debussy to Gershwin and explored the globe with Russian, Jewish and American music included in the repertoire.

Since the start, Northern Chords has been led by artistic director and founder, Jonathan Bloxham. The aim of the festival is to encourage the performance of chamber music in the North East as well as supporting young musicians; this year, the festival welcomed BBC Young Musician of the Year, Guy Johnston, and award-winning German clarinettist David Orlowsky to the region. Over five days, performances took place at the Sage Gateshead, Newcastle and Durham Cathedrals, and St Andrews Church, Corbridge. The themed music progressed from the first evening, aptly named Midnight in Paris, to the final concert, Summertime in the USA which included music from the Jazz Age (and a dash of minimalism for good measure).

northern chords picI went to the Sage for the first and final nights of the festival – and I was impressed. My parents dragged me along to concerts and I’ve always thought that I don’t really like classical music. It felt like something I ought to appreciate but I’d never really made the connection. However, I’ve been listening to Mozart recently to help with my exam revision (it’s meant to improve concentration, whether that’s actually true I’m yet to discover) and I’ve always enjoyed Debussy’s Clair de Lune – but I’ve never gone voluntarily to a chamber music concert before – and I’ve certainly not gone alone.

And so, as I took my seat on the first night, I was slightly apprehensive. A quick glance around the room gave me the demographic of the audience; I was the only female there alone and probably the youngest person there, too. I had never been to The Sage before either – I’ve only ever admired the aesthetics of the exterior from my fairly familiar seat across the Tyne in Pitcher and Piano (a terrible thing to admit, I know).

But I quickly overcame my initial nerves. Hall two in the Sage is small and cosy, particularly as the lights dimmed to signal the beginning of the concert. The darkness of the room with just the musicians, all dressed in black and spotlighted at they played their instruments gave the performances a raw and emotional quality. The pieces felt like love letters to a beloved homeland and a terrified glance towards an unpredictable future as the outbreak of the First World War became the backdrop for musical composition. The crushed chords on the piano and the straining of the violins and clarinet created an intense evening which was at times both violent and graceful, but always beautiful.

Sage Gateshead by Maria CaseThe Sage is a fantastic venue and having had a quick glance at their June to August diary, the wealth and versatility of the concerts and events held there looks brilliant. Also (this is student Maria speaking) the prices of the bar are quite reasonable; I had a G&T at the interval and it was the same price as I would expect to pay my at usual Jesmond haunts (Bar Blanc or Osbornes for Mojito Monday, if you were wondering). I’ve been won over. I now want to listen to more Gershwin and find out if Debussy really was influenced by Wagner. The Northern Chords Festival is exactly what it says on the tin – not only is it a celebration of chamber music, it is also a celebration of the fantastic venues in the North East which suit such concerts so well.

Review by Maria Case


For more information about Northern Chords, click here