Appropriately enough, my first review of 2019 comes from Sage Gateshead’s annual “New Year New Artists” festival, which showcases the work of young musicians across a range of genres: in this evening’s contribution from Royal Northern Sinfonia and conductor Jessica Cottis, the new music theme was represented by the saxophonist Jess Gillam and the finals of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Young Composers competition.

Jess Gillam © Kaupo Kikkas
Jess Gillam
© Kaupo Kikkas

These strands slotted into a joyful programme of dances that blended music from France and Brazil. Debussy’s Dances sacrée et profane for harp and string orchestra was a softly alluring invitation to the dance; the sweetly radiant strings tempting the listener in, before Sharron Griffiths’s harp took over with delicate droplets of sound, carefully placed and nicely balanced with the strings. The other Debussy piece on the programme, Ravel’s orchestration of the Sarabande from Pour le piano, began with solemn grace, although it also felt a little insecure, and not completely together, but it settled down as it swelled to a sumptuous fantasy, led by the richness of the cellos and double basses, and decorated with a dreamy trumpet solo.

After playing it at Last Night of the Proms, Jess Gillam seems to have made Milhaud’s Scaramouche her signature piece and in this, the first of two appearances this evening, she was a delight. Her performance sparkled with character, her mannerisms and playing making it clear that she adores playing it. What was also noticeable though was the fact that she remained hyper-vigilant to Cottis’ conducting, regularly making eye contact with her, and was sensitive to everything else happening around her. Royal Northern Sinfonia responded in kind, particularly the flutes and brass in their playful duets. In the slow movement, the strings and muted brass enhanced the smoky, late-night atmosphere that Gillam created, whilst the Samba was full of sunshine.

There were, however, some problems with balance, and these were even more noticeable in Gillam’s second-half piece, the Fantasia for soprano saxophone by Villa-Lobos where the strings often overwhelmed the saxophone. Gillam seemed less comfortable in this work, although given what she had to tackle in the extreme virtuosity demanded from the saxophonist in the final section, this was understandable, and she pulled off the tricky finale with style. The first movement too demands long runs from the saxophone, even though the overall mood of the piece is slow, and I very much enjoyed how Gillam’s expressiveness carried through these long phrases. There has to be a special mention too for Michael Gerrard’s sultry viola solo that opened the slow middle movement.

Jessica Cottis © Kaupo Kikkas
Jessica Cottis
© Kaupo Kikkas

Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes marked a departure from the Franco-Brazilian theme, although their vibrancy sat very well with the rest of the programme, beginning with the RNS strings giving a biting edge to the spiky theme that drives through the first Marche. The woodwinds are at the forefront throughout these dances, with Stravinsky using them to create a surprisingly broad palette of colours for such a small ensemble: the pairings of unison flute and clarinet and later flute and trumpet came across particularly effectively, as did Amy Yule’s dazzling solo flute passages. The fourth movement Pas de deux is a ballet scene, but one that’s been crazily distorted through a kaleidoscope; RNS and Cottis brought a stylish sophistication to this, before throwing themselves headlong into the outright naughtiness of the final Marche with offbeat brass, and pizzicato strings jolting the flow. The oboe and clarinet force a short moment of seriousness, leading to a soft false ending before a final jazzy burst.

The direction to those entering the RNS Young Composer’s competition was to write a “celebratory” piece as part of the orchestra’s 60th anniversary season. The second half began with the announcement and performance of the winning piece, Alex Dakin’s Firework Spirals. Dakin’s piece certainly met the brief of “celebration”, and the buzzing energy in his string writing and the sparks of light flying from the woodwind made this piece an excellent match for the rest of the programme. I’d be quite happy to hear Firework Spirals programmed alongside Stravinsky again.

A second Milhaud piece, Le Boeuf sur le toit returned to the Brazilian theme, with a set of dances in between a carnivalesque rondo theme. There were more fine woodwind solos here from Royal Northern Sinfonia, but on the whole this piece never really took off, simply circling back on itself with each repeat of the rondo, instead of developing so that the beef was rather cold by the time it reached the end. Fondant by Errollyn Wallen, who chaired the competition judging, was presented by Cottis as an encore, although it was included in the printed programme. The piece was written for RNS’s 60th anniversary, and is joyful little slice of sugary cake, ending with clever variations on Happy Birthday.