Abigail's blog: ‘This will only exist in the moment…’
These were the last words spoken in Sage One before we closed to the public for the foreseeable future, in response to government advice and for the safety of our audiences, our team and our musicians. The words were spoken by the wonderful Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, who always finishes her concerts with an improvisation. Improvisation is the purest form of ‘only existing in this moment’ – not written down, not thought about in advance, always in response to a musical idea which she asks an audience member to suggest. She gave this last concert on the back of a rollercoaster 48 hours in which she thought she had Coronavirus, self-isolated, then tested negative, missing her first concert scheduled at Sage Gateshead, then played her second with us as her country’s borders were closing and the number of flights to get her back home to Spain was decreasing by the minute. In the end this last concert (which we all knew in our hearts it was) was exceptional and very moving.
Indeed the whole sequence of performances last week in Sage One – widely accepted as the best concert hall in Europe – reminded me of the power of live performance and the power of different music for different contexts. As closure steadily became inevitable, the diversity of Sage Gateshead’s musical and audience reach played out in three days. On Wednesday Sage Gateshead filled with the incredible sound of 900 Year 4 pupils from 30 Gateshead and South Tyneside schools, lifting the roof of Sage One with their voices in front of an audience of parents and friends – an audience which had come to watch the culmination of several months of work by them in school. On Thursday The Lightning Seeds opened their six date UK tour at Sage Gateshead and as everyone got on their feet and sang and danced their hearts away to Football’s Coming Home, three decades faded away and we were in a totally different time. On Friday Royal Northern Sinfonia performed music written across a whole century, composed by a Norwegian and two Russians, with a conductor from France and soloist from Germany. It’s hard to imagine three more different concerts, three more different audiences, three more different atmospheres.
‘This only exists in the moment’ applies to any live performance – these words capture what is so compelling and unique about live performance. A group of people who don’t know each other, select to come together to form a community – an audience – for a short period of time. Only they will have this experience, and when it’s over, it’s gone. Time and again people tell me it’s not just about the magic of a great musician at their height which brings them to gigs, it’s also that it’s shared with other people and the electric atmosphere which this creates. Last week the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra proved this by streaming a concert in an empty auditorium – brilliant music and musicians, led by the legendary Sir Simon Rattle. A fantastic thing to do, and something we will all do a lot of in coming times. But no audience, no atmosphere, no community, no immediate exchange.
So this is a curious time to run an organisation for which a core part of our purpose is to organise ‘massed gatherings’ for over 1000 people on a daily basis. We do much much more than performances -we teach young people, give classes to adults, support the next generation of musicians from the North, use music to help people who are vulnerable, work in communities across the region. We are one of the biggest cultural charities in the country. But this week it is the performances – perhaps the most visible aspect of the charity’s work – which I’ve been thinking about. And as we have closed down the building, postponing all of our concerts, classes and activity, the building feels incomplete – empty with no preparation or anticipation of an event which is just around the corner. No anticipation of an audience – of parents anticipating hearing their children, of long term fans anticipating hearing music which is the soundtrack of another part of their life, of people wanting to hear something new, to have their ears opened to a new world of sound.
As the building has fallen silent, one thing has been really clear to me – live music will be back. We are heading into a time when gigs will go online, we’ll build virtual choirs, music classes will take via Facetime. We will all live closer to home and in much smaller networks for a while. But beyond this, the live, face to face, in-person experience will be back. As our box office team are beginning the process of calling every audience member who has a ticket for a concert which won’t go ahead on the planned date, something has started to happen. Rather than a refund, people have started to donate their ticket back to the charity. Knowing the risk which the charity – like so many others – will be at through this crisis, members of our audience have opted to help us out. This will enable us to keep things secure for our musicians, our teachers, our staff and to be here at the end of this – to give world class performances, to teach people of all ages, to serve our communities, to use music to help people in their lives. We’re incredibly grateful for this generosity and that people are thinking of us.
Above all I wonder whether this is a sign of the value of live music and that unique atmosphere created by an audience coming together for a brief time to hear something which only ‘in this moment’.