Jess Gillam, Royal Northern Sinfonia And Hexham Abbey

Taking music on the road can only be a good thing. It introduces new audiences to classical music and breathes new life into buildings.
Emma Chesworth
July 2, 2024

Hexham Abbey rocked to the sound of David Bowie at the weekend thanks to saxsuperstar Jess Gillam and the string players of Royal Northern Sinfonia.

In their commitment to making music accessible for all, Royal Northern Sinfonia took to the road for a four date tour taking in Sedbergh, Berwick, Bishop Auckland and finally Hexham.

They were joined by star of the show, Cumbria’s Jess Gillam, who oozes talent with every note she plays.

Entitled ‘On The Nature of Daylight’, the programme spanned four centuries and Jess Gillam’s sparkling stage presence and trademark sparkly trousers, captivated the packed pews of the Abbey.

The string players opened the show with Fanfare from Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. Then, a beaming Jess Gillam strode down the Abbey aisle, a saxophone in each hand, to join them on stage for an afternoon of eclectic, exciting and evocative music.

Jess and the orchestra, performing below the gleaming pipes of the Abbey’s organ, continued with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Allegro Assai from Flute Concerto in A Minor.

“That piece by CP Bach is so full of life, joy and vigour and we are all so happy to be performing here in this beautiful venue,” said Jess, addressing the audience...

A musical triptych celebrating space and the cosmos included Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight. This six minute piece was a real highlight of the performance for meand it preceded La Lever de la Lune and Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. Jess seamlessly swapped the soprano sax for the alto for the final part of the trio of pieces.

Guest directing the concert with Jess was violinist Caroline Pether - the leader of Manchester Camerata. She is passionate about inspiring the next generation of musicians working as a violin tutor with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and as a guest at UK conservatoires and youth orchestras delivering workshops.

The last piece before the interval was The Celtic by David Heath. The three movement piece, inspired by the composer’s time living in Scotland, starts with a ceilidh - moves onto a lament - before ending with a barn dance. It is quite the ride! Performances in venues not specifically designed for music or theatre always feel a bit special for me - the juxtaposition of place and performance adds something extra to the experience for me.

During the interval, rather than heading to the bar for a drink or ice cream, the audience wandered throughout the Abbey looking at the exhibitions and admiring the stunning architecture. As well as taking advantage of the beautiful surroundings, I think many also wanted to stretch their legs a bit, me included. Pews are not designed for comfort.

Hexham Abbey
Hexham Abbey

The second half opened with Edward Elgar’s Serenade before the first movement of George Philipp Telemann’s Concerto in G Major for Oboe.

The eclectic nature of the programme was brought to the fore with the following two pieces - Nadia Boulanger’s Cantique and David Bowie’s Life on Mars. As Jess said: “These two pieces are perfect examples of being from completely different corners of the music world but they still have themes in common.”

As Jess played and swayed and Bowie’s arguably greatest hit filled the Abbey, it was hard not to smile and appreciate the absolute joy live music brings. Jess Gillam’s passion is infectious.

Aged just 26, Jess has already been recognised for her contribution to the music world having been appointed MBE in 2021. Her Cumbrian tones are a firm favourite of listeners to BBC Radio 3 where she became the station’s youngest ever presenter with her show ‘This Classical Life’.

Her roots are hugely important to Jess and her love for Cumbria, and her home town of Ulverston especially, is well-known to her radio and concert audiences.

The afternoon ends with the high energy Rant! composed by Newcastle-born, Ivor Novello Award winner, John Harle. A ‘rant’ in traditional English folk music means to ‘make merry’ and boy, Jess and the string players do exactly that!

Rant! was specially composed by John Harle for Jess in 2018. As Jess tells the audience: “John’s my tutor and he included lots of techniques I found the hardest when composing Rant! to make sure I could play them properly.”

Rant! draws on Cumbrian folk tunes including The Ulverston Volunteers and Cumberland Nelly and it is ends the afternoon concert on a rip-roaring high.

It was a privilege to watch Jess and the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Taking music on the road can only be a good thing. It introduces new audiences to classical music and breathes new life into buildings.

Bach and Bowie on the same bill. What’s not to like?

Header Image: Tynesight Photographic