The announcement that the outstanding German violinist Thomas Zehetmair was to be music director of the Northern Sinfonia came out of the blue. With no track record as a conductor, little experience in planning seasons and less in engaging orchestral personnel, his appointment may even have surprised him. In the two-year run-up to the opening of the Sage Gateshead – the rapidly rising Tyneside venue devoted to performance, education and community culture – artistic leadership is crucial. But happily, those responsible for music provision at the new centre and for creating a higher-profile Northern Sinfonia grasped what Zehetmair has to offer. And, regardless of a lack of any recognisable conducting technique, his first concerts with the Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Carlisle were very encouraging.
Zehetmair is clearly a musician who knows what he wants and finds a way to achieve it, whether it is in the adventurous programming or uncompromising music-making that characterised his inaugural concerts. He secured a firmly focused string sound in an incisive account of a short Partita by the Moravian composer, Gideon Klein, a leading cultural light in the Terezin concentration camp before his despatch to Auschwitz and subsequent death. Originally a string trio, arranged for chamber forces by Vojtech Saudek, the Partita – only really known through a recording by the Czech Philharmonic – is full of textural subtleties, an appealing blend of vitality and eloquence. In his brief introduction, in slightly halting English, Zehetmair identified the sunny theme of the central variations as a Moravian folk song that Klein's nanny sang to him. No longer just another inventive but faceless piece from a lost generation, the music immediately took on a more personal note.
Drawing, no doubt, on his excellent contacts as a chamber-music player, Zehetmair persuaded Boris Pergamenschikow to play Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. Very much a musician's musician, Pergamenschikow quite simply bows to the music. He is its servant and he lets it speak, here in an immensely powerful, clear voice. The slow movement radiated brooding lyricism, while the grim irony of the final movement, with its allusions to a favourite tune of Stalin as well as a Jewish shtetl dance, was in marked contrast to the scorching, almost ugly sounds that made the preceding cadenza so completely riveting.
In Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, violins divided on either side of the rostrum, Zehetmair not only focused on detail but, crucially, kept up the momentum of the whirling finale. The playing, especially the woodwind ensemble, was beyond reproach. Zehetmair may be a wild card, but with his evident musical intelligence and integrity, the Northern Sinfonia and its audiences across the North of England can look forward to concerts with attitude and music-making with an edge.