Cultural revolution

The Sage in Gateshead is causing a sensation with the public. It's not surprising when the music programme is as fresh and daring as the architecture, says Lynne Walker
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The Independent Culture

It has devoured enough concrete to pave a path from St James's Park, Newcastle, to the San Siro Stadium in Milan, has benefited from a £47m Lottery grant, and resembles a huge, slinky caterpillar. When The Sage, Gateshead, a pioneering centre for musical performance on the south bank of the River Tyne, opens its doors next week, it will represent the most exciting new development on the British arts scene for many years.

"You wouldn't want to have a premier league football team playing on a bumpy old pitch," the former chief executive of the Northern Sinfonia, John Summers, once told me. Yet this first division chamber orchestra is accustomed to making do with less-than-ideal venues.

In Newcastle, where the Northern Sinfonia has previously been based, the City Hall had long been inadequate. Andres Segovia complained about the noises intruding on his guitar recital from the swimming baths next door. That was in 1927 and the sounds have seeped through ever since. All that is set to change next week when Sir Norman Foster's gleaming £70m music centre takes centre-stage in the North East. It's not in Newcastle, however, but across the Tyne in visionary Gateshead.

With a population of just 189,000, Gateshead has, quite remarkably, created a golden artistic triangle within the space of half a mile. There's Wilkinson Eyre's stunning Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the Baltic centre for contemporary arts and now a venue that promises to be much more than a home for the Northern Sinfonia.

With its state-of-the-art facilities, The Sage will provide the first opportunities for members of a professional orchestra actively to support music educa- tion, providing expert instrumental tuition to schoolchildren, as well as offering lessons in everything from penny-whistle to dancing the Morpeth Rant, and providing support and encouragement for music teachers or those who simply wish to pursue a hobby.

It seems an obvious solution to the problems of inadequate music education and the conservatism of ageing classical concert audiences, but with the exception of a vaguely similar project in Trondheim, the Cité de la Musique in Paris and possibly the combined forces of the London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, you'd be hard pushed to think of anything so devoted to making music work for people.

"As an integrated arts project it quite simply has no equal," according to Summers, who is now chief executive of the Hallé. The idea of celebrating the close relationship between performing musicians, teachers and the wider community stems from a plan hatched by the cultural consultant John Myerscough in 1991. The 1,700-seat Hall One has a ceiling that, uniquely, opens up in seven sections: the acoustic can be made to suit both a chamber orchestra the size of the Northern Sinfonia and a gig involving heavy amplification. Unusually, therefore, for a multi-purpose auditorium, it is designed first and foremost to suit the intimacy of a chamber orchestra; a smaller hall complements it.

The consensus among the Northern Sinfonia, according to Simon Clugston, responsible for The Sage's carefully chosen classical programme, is that it has a new home every bit as acoustically refined as the best in Europe. The company's newish music director, the violinist Thomas Zehetmair, one of the most distinguished chamber-players of his generation, has already drawn on his international contacts in the list of soloists, like Heinz Holliger, for Northern Sinfonia concerts. He's eagerly anticipating being involved in the educational side of the orchestra's work at The Sage, and sharing his fierce passion for new music, as well as baroque and classical repertoire, with some of the million people involved in the first year of the centre's extensive education programme.

For Anthony Sargent, the general director, it was vital to launch an initial programme of events - as did the not dissimilar Pompidou Centre in Paris - before the complex opened. "We knew that there was an audience for classical music and there was a big interest in folk music, but the North East had enjoyed less opportunity to keep abreast of the latest in jazz or world music. But we were amazed and delighted that so many of the existing classical music audiences were willing to experiment. Now, regulars are cheerily making up subscriptions for themselves ranging right across the programme."

As well as a mouthwatering range of top orchestras from Britain and abroad lined up beyond 2006-07, there are pioneering collaborations in the pipeline between classical and all sorts of other music. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies embraces Kathryn Tickell's Northumbrian pipes; Gerard McBurney gets to work on the under-fives with Courtney Pine; and the baroque group I Fagiolini tangle with aerialists in the glazed concourse. Despite its international flavour, The Sage remains rooted in the north-east's cultural traditions: the holding tune on the telephone switchboard is a Northumbrian folk song, the cafés and brasserie have a "Northumbrian" flavour and there's a selection of guest real ales.

The funding has been a challenge, says Sargent, but they have fought their way through the complex negotiations, and are "proud and delighted to have been awarded special, one-year extra funding from a new consortium of six public sector groups." A £6m sponsorship from the software provider Sage Group gave the complex its name; the welly people Barbour have also waded in, their support recognised in the Barbour Room; and one of The Sage's most useful features, a purpose-built space for rehearsals and more informal community events, acknowledges the support of Northern Rock Foundation.

Next year, The Sage will host countless conferences, from Womax (the World Music Expo) to a Labour Party spring get-together, while the music continues to play and, the executives hope, people come to listen, learn and be inspired. The opening of this ambitious modern miracle surely makes Gateshead a strong contender for Britain's next cultural capital.

The Sage, Gateshead opens to the public on 17 December (0870 703 4555; www.sagecentregateshead.org)

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