Dancing Nights was a great title for this evening’s concert by Northern Sinfonia – a perfectly balanced selection of light-hearted music, with every piece on the main programme written with the intention of making people happy in one way or another.

John Wilson © Chris Christodoulou
John Wilson
© Chris Christodoulou

Eric Coates is remembered mainly for two works – By the Sleepy Lagoon (better known as the theme tune to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs), and the march from The Dam Busters. His Dancing Nights: Concert Waltz is definitely more in the style of the former work. It was written for Eastbourne’s 1931 music festival, and it’s a delightfully carefree piece, that definitely has something of the seaside about it. John Wilson brought out some lovely relaxed playing from the orchestra, with some graceful timing – towards the end of the piece there was a delicious pause, the music hung in the air before letting go for one last twirl around the dance-floor.

Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye ended up as a ballet, but it began life as a piano suite for four hands. It was written for the children of his friends, and inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy stories. We meet the spinning wheel and the sleeping princess, Beauty and the Beast, Tom Thumb lost in the forest and the Empress of the Pagodas, all beautifully evoked with Ravel’s characteristic orchestral colours, and between each story, strings fluttering through the turning pages of the book. The soft horns and flute of the opening created an atmosphere of spooky expectancy, and immediately made me feel like a child at the theatre, waiting for the magic to begin. The faster movements – “Danse du Rouet” (“the Spinning Wheel”) and “Laideronette, Impératrice des Pagodes” (“Little Ugly Girl, the Empress of the Pagodas”) fizzed and sparkled, particularly the woodwind solos. “Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête” (“the conversations between Beauty and the Beast”) began with a wonderfully growly Beast, full of character, played by contrabassoon and double bass, right at the bottom of their range.

Under the baton of Principal Conductor John Wilson, Northern Sinfonia shed the immaculate self-control that they produce when they’re playing romantic symphonies for Thomas Zehetmair. Wilson conducts the louder passages with grand sweeping gestures, encouraging his players not to hold anything back, and like everyone who conducts in the great acoustic of Hall One at the Sage Gateshead, he was able to take the volume right down, almost to nothing, when required. This sense of the players letting go and being swept along in the music was apparent throughout the evening, but really made itself felt during their heartfelt performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony.

The symphony received its first performance at the BBC Proms in 1943 and, in contrast to the harshness of the Fourth Symphony, it’s a gentle work, easy to listen to, and perhaps intended to give its listeners hope in the darkness of war. It includes many of Vaughan Williams’ characteristics – big string melodies, use of modal harmonies, hints of hymn tunes, and a beautiful slow movement with Tudor-inspired polyphonic writing, full of suspensions. But what The Sage Gateshead’s programming brought out here was the connection between Vaughan Williams and Ravel. In 1908, Vaughan Williams spent three months studying composition with Ravel in Paris, and the two men became life-long friends. Ravel taught the Englishman how to add light and colour to his music, and helped him to develop his own musical voice.

The effect of those lessons with Ravel is particularly obvious during the second movement of the Symphony, a high-spirited Scherzo, full of colour, contrasts, and dancing rhythms. I enjoyed the deft little bassoon solo, and solemn brass, and the overall theatricality of Northern Sinfonia’s performance: Scherzo means joke, and this movement was full of them. The third movement, Romanza, had some wonderfully sonorous and dignified trombone playing, in marked contrast to their comic antics of the Scherzo.

The symphony ends with a Passacaglia and a melody derived from the Alleluias of Vaughan Williams’ great hymn tune “Sine Nomine” (a setting of “For All the Saints”), and like the Ravel in the first half, it came to a wonderfully tranquil ending.

After the main performance, we were invited to return to the hall for the first of Northern Sinfonia’s “Spotlight” performances, an opportunity to hear a small number of players showcasing their talents. This evening’s Spotlight turned out to be a string quartet, and they continued the evening’s theme of dance with a cheerful performance of Dvořák’s “Slavonic” Tenth String Quartet.