To mark his final concert as Musical Director of Royal Northern Sinfonia, after twelve years in the job, Thomas Zehetmair conducted and played in a programme covered with his unmistakable fingerprints: core Mozart and Beethoven repertoire, mixed with imaginative programming of 20th and 21st century music, and with the addition of his wife, viola-player Ruth Killius to make it a truly personal occasion.

Thomas Zehetmair © Dan Brady
Thomas Zehetmair
© Dan Brady
Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni opened the concert with that distinctive Zehetmair style; fierce but tightly precise as the orchestra moved swiftly through the opening chords, with tension and momentum building through the flute scales before suddenly, the light shone in, and the music relaxed into a joyful, flirtatious romp.

Ruth Killius played Bartók’s Viola Concerto with this orchestra in a very enjoyable performance a couple of years ago but tonight both she and the orchestra were on fire. Her opening statement, accompanied by timpani was bold and spirited, with a meaty tone, and the orchestra picked up and worked on every nuance of emotion expressed by her solo; sometimes running with the wild playfulness, and at other times responding comfortingly to the underlying melancholy that colours the solo line. Zehetmair and Killius took the final movement at a hair-raising pace; if the soloist and orchestra had a bet on who could play fastest, it was a dead heat, for the orchestra kept up the pace, pausing only to catch their breath during the woodwind solos and exploding again for the final burst, in which the flutes and solo viola meshed together immaculately in a brilliant bit of orchestration.

Thomas Zehetmair has done much to champion new music in the North East, and so it was only right that this concert should include a world première performance, of a work written for Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius by John Casken, who has a long association with Royal Northern Sinfonia. That Subtle Knot, a double concerto for violin, viola and orchestra takes its inspiration from an image in John Donne’s poem “The Ecstasy” in which two lovers sit together, hands entwined in a double string. The work began exquisitely, with the solo viola, playing very softly and sweetly, Killius’s sound now so transformed from the fat tone of the Bartók that she could have been playing an entirely different instrument. The violin wraps itself around the viola melody and out of this combined sound the orchestra gradually emerges in pulses of colour, beginning with a solo clarinet that was so quiet and well blended, it sounded initially like string overtones. There was much to enjoy in this work: a sense in the first movement of the solo couple standing together, united against the rest of the world, finishing each other’s musical sentences; echoes of Bartók in the second movement; and a piccolo glittering through the final glowing discords – but it was the haunting intimacy of the opening phrases that will stay with me. There was more Bartók too, as Zehetmair and Killius slipped in a cheeky little encore, playing his duet No 43 – an exquisite pizzicato miniature that acted as a palette cleanser between Casken and Beethoven.

Personally, the thing I will remember the most about Thomas Zehermair’s time at Sage Gateshead is his Beethoven symphonies; the vigour and freshness of his interpretation, and his attention to every musical detail was, to me, a revelation. Tonight’s Fifth Symphony was always going to be something special, and both orchestra and conductor delivered. The opening chords were taut and springy, a trampoline from which the orchestra bounced their way through the first movement; occasionally pausing in moments such as the spacious oboe solo, only to rebound with renewed energy. If the first movement bounced, the acrobatic orchestra switched to dancing for a light-footed Andante. The double basses, cellos and violas were demonic in the third movement – their repeated motif very fast, loud and incredibly resonant. Zehetmair’s characteristic dynamic contrasts were particularly marked, but never sounded forced: the pizzicato passage at the end of the third movement was almost inaudible, drawing back to allow the biggest possible wave of sound to gather and sweep us away into the final Allegro. At this moment everyone on the stage turned the piece into a wonderful celebration of Zehetmair’s time with them; it was vibrant, energetic and yet still every single part was audible, from the piccolo to the trombone.

There was some discussion in the media recently about standing ovations and if ever there was a case for this mark of respect to be saved for special occasions, this was it, for as Hall One lit up with lights saying “Danke” and “Thank You” and the capacity audience burst into cheers and prolonged applause, it was an honour to be able to get to our feet to mark our appreciation for Thomas Zehetmair’s contribution to music in the North East.