Wednesday, 13 May 2015

String Quartets and Octagonal Chapels - Northern Chords at The Norfolk & Norwich Festival

A bonus of volunteering at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival is the chance to see performances that perhaps I would not have otherwise have attended. Sometimes my limited finances pose an obstacle, although the chance to steward a Festival event will often allow free entry to the performance itself. On other occasions, the release of a limited number of complimentary or concessionary tickets for volunteers on a first-come first-served basis will tempt me along to an event that may have slipped under my radar, or of which I am not acquainted.

So far this week I have already picked up one extra shift, and taken advantage of one complimentary ticket, thereby boosting my Festival tally by yet another two events.

A chance to steward a concert of three Mendelssohn String Quartets at The Octagon Chapel in Colegate came very much as a last minute surprise. After an exciting two days working with French theatre company X-TNT Monday morning was a chance to catch a bit of a lie in, then catch up with household chores. Only whilst I was cutting the grass in the late afternoon did my mobile phone flash up a Facebook message from the Volunteer Co-ordinators - an urgent call for an extra steward required in just over one hour's time.

Now I live about six miles out of Norwich, and just after five o'clock in the afternoon is probably not the best time to try and get through the city traffic. Fortunately I own a motorbike which not only provides a rapid mode of transport, but also avoids any parking problems. I worked out that I just about had time to shower, don the Volunteer T-Shirt, and still get over to the Octagon Chapel in time for 18.15pm.

And I am so glad I did. The Octagon Chapel is a beautiful setting for a chamber concert - the acoustics are perfect, and the audience is guaranteed a marvellous view from every one of the seats, either downstairs or from the first-floor balcony.

I am met on the steps in the evening sunshine by the Event Manager, Hannah, with whom I worked at Holkham Hall during last year's Voice Project festival performance. She gives us our briefing and allocates responsibilities. I am to be outside on meet and greet.

As all seating is unreserved we are warned that ticket holders may well start arriving well before the start time of 19.30pm. And they do, even before we have managed to locate the keys for the toilets in the adjacent Martineau Hall. We have one wheelchair user to look out for, and a fair number of cyclists are looking for secure railings to lock their bikes to. Several of the older members of the audience have brought their own cushions, and seem to know exactly which seats they are heading for. This is the first of a series of three concerts, and many have purchased tickets for all three. Fortunately they are all well organised, and nobody has brought along the wrong ticket.

The Northern Chords Ensemble is led by cellist Jonathan Bloxham. Drawing current and future artists from the award-winning Northern Chords Festival, based in Gateshead, tonight's other three performers are Bloxham's colleague and former schoolfriend, Ricky Gore, on violin; Bloxham's Estonian born girlfriend, Liisa Randalu, on viola, and newcomer to the ensemble, the Greek-Albanian violinist, Jonian-Ilias Kadesha. Tonight's programme consists of Mendelssohn's String Quartets No 1 in E-flat Op. 12; No 4 in E minor Op.44 No2; and, after a twenty minute interval, No 2 in A minor Op.13.

Not that I am overtly familiar with any of Mendelssohn's string quartets. I had already blown my classical credibility with Hannah by whether we could re-admit latecomers after the interval. 'Yes, string quartets are always of four movements', she reminds me. 'You could let them in at the end of the first movement'. And I could have got away with it as well. Nobody was late back from the interval.

What I will say, though, is that the Northern Chords Ensemble turned in an exemplary performance that even one of our festival interns was taken aback by - it was her first ever 'classical gig'. The wild-haired Jonian played with such energy and flamboyance, Ricky and Liisa added precision and grace, and Jonathan was the rock solid leader on cello. The combination was totally engaging, and, as Jonathan quite rightly pointed out, Mendelssohn is one of those composers for whom programme notes are really unnecessary for the String Quartets. "Audiences just 'get them' instantly", he declared.

The Northern Chords Ensemble received a totally deserved second call-back, and really set the bar high for the rest of the week at The Octagon Chapel. They graciously allowed us to take our wheelchair user through their dressing room to exit the venue, allowing me a chance to congratulate them in person. I would now second that appreciation via this blog entry. Bravo!

For full Norfolk & Norwich Festival programme and tickets go to

For more information on the Northern Chords Festival go to

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