Just a month ago we had our first full capacity audience in Sage One. In the interval, just for a minute, I found myself slightly overwhelmed by the sound of animated chatter, clinking glasses and the sight of twinkling lights as night-time descended outside over the Tyne. It was all very familiar – it’s what happens when 1700 people have just heard – probably for the first time – a really good support musician.
It’s Friday night: people have finished the working week, are able to meet up with family and friends and are anticipating hearing the great musician they have booked to hear. I guess when you’ve waited two years and the date has been rescheduled many times, as was the case for John Grant’s audience, the buzz might be slightly greater than usual. But it’s exactly what happens at live music. This is what happens on a Friday night in September in one of the best venues in Europe. But I found myself briefly alone on the concourse and momentarily overwhelmed by the familiarity of it all. And then someone came over to chat and the evening rolled on.
The past month has been full of brief pauses to notice a milestone – swiping the pass door into our big administration office and meeting the wall of sound that my colleagues make when greeting each other at the start of the day, making a cup of coffee, getting down to work in the same space for the first time in 18 months. Then bumping into one of our music leaders on the concourse and hearing what they are going to do in the first session with participants in our Music Education Centre. And sitting on stage listening to RNS give a family and friends concert to welcome everyone back to the building – being up close to an orchestra playing full tilt can be pretty spellbinding . And then being in the room at the end of a show when an audience, without a split second’s pause after a piece of music ends, rises as one to its feet and roars with joy.
On the surface it looks like return, but of course it isn’t. First, because we continue to live with precautions and the certainty of uncertainty through the autumn, Christmas and spring – we don’t really know what’s going to happen next and it’s clearly not over. Secondly because we know that we can’t just return to what was. Things have changed. We must find ways, amongst all of the challenges, to do things differently. We need to point more determinedly in the direction of a future we can shape together. What does that mean? Well, to take four things – greater attention to our environmental impact, greater emphasis on equality of opportunity, a greater sense of what we can be as communities and a greater value in what’s specific about any individual place. Same old, you might say and of course these were in our minds before. But in their different ways, the past 18 months have brought a sharpened perspective on all of these things – whether through the shock of events or through the suspension of something important in our lives as we were confined to our homes.
So we’ll return with both the familiar and the new. John Grant finally gives us a blisteringly brilliant night showcasing his latest album. And he creates a film for us on the subject of climate change – a commission along with three others to be released this week in advance of COP26 because we want to ask musicians to explore this greatest challenge.
Royal Northern Sinfonia are back and with a new generation of musical leadership and members – bringing great music to new ears, working with 250 talented amateur orchestral musicians and singers from across the North East to mark the pandemic and commissioning new music from the next generation of composers.
In our work with young people we have even greater determination to make our venue more welcoming so that anyone should feel they can come in, explore music and whilst here be aware of the possibility of a career in music and be able to imagine themselves in that career. And with Christmas – how we all missed it last year with its rituals with family and friends – we have a new determination to make sure that cost should not be a barrier and that anybody can create a Sage Gateshead Christmas memory with their loved ones.
Who knows where we really are on this Covid journey and what lies ahead? But we do know we’re at a milestone. And it’s the moment from which we need to build the future. Wherever things go next, we’re out in the open, back together, in the flesh, in the public domain. And time and again I see the joy of people getting back together, connecting with music, meeting friends, exploring new ideas. Back with difference.