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Are we nearly there yet?

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After a summer of planning, re-thinking and re-planning we finally welcomed audiences back into Sage Gateshead at the end of October after seven long months. We were thrilled, our performers were thrilled and given the massive thumbs-up from the 1,200 people (less than a full house in normal times) who came over four nights, I think our audience was pretty thrilled too.

I am immensely proud of our team who worked so hard to get the building ready – safe, inviting, special – and to put together a programme which provided the familiar and the new. The team worked their hardest on Halloween night – between a matinee and an evening show the Prime Minister announced a second national lockdown, just at the point that the evening audience entered the building.  What to say? Keep calm and carry on…

We have all become used to things turning on their heel in an instant and all continued as planned for the evening. It was always on the cards that some of Sage Live 2020 might have to go online only at some point, and we had planned for exactly that.

We’d been live streaming the series since the beginning, so that those who could not or did not want to come in were able to still attend live events at Sage Gateshead.  Live streaming is new to us and has been new to many of the musicians involved. Let’s be honest – there were some little glitches as we got used to the technology and as musicians adapted (very quickly) to playing together but quite far apart. A really wonderful thing has been seeing how our team, our musicians and our audience have been on a journey together.

In fact, playing in an empty hall proved a really moving and different experience for Royal Northern Sinfonia and Lanterns on the Lake one week and Yazz Ahmed the next. Leading North East musicians in an empty hall playing to the world. Without that immediate interaction with an audience in the hall, the magic of live performance is different but it is still there: there is still a sense of event and still a sense of audience, chatting on social media, comparing their favourite piece, what they like best about this music.

We’ll keep it going in this format up to and beyond the time when we can open the doors to the building again.  There’s no going back – online and in the hall will prevail, I’m sure of it. But they will remain very different, although equally valid, experiences. And in the hall will always have the different, super-charged, electricity which it has always had.

Sage Live 2020 attracted attention in the way that live performance always has, and perhaps also because it seemed to represent something of a watershed: the first, tentative steps back to the normality we all miss and all crave.

My social media timeline last week filled up briefly over the matter of who likes opera and theatre and who likes football and the suggestion that you can’t like both. The majority of the chat was, of course, you can and that both are enjoyed the length and breadth of the country.  It did get me thinking about the similarities between sport and “the arts”. Both provide entertainment. Both inspire passion. Both can improve lives.  Both are our culture and for many people make life worth living.

Many football clubs, including our teams here are known for turning the passion that they inspire into work with communities – and young people especially – to improve people’s quality of life. While Sage Live 2020 might be seen as public-facing or newsworthy, it is only part of what Sage Gateshead does and, to my mind, is not the most important part. Like our sporting counterparts, we treasure the work we do with communities across the North East.

In normal times, 2,000 adults come in to Sage Gateshead every week for a class while 250 young people take over the building on Saturdays and Sundays for their classes, bands and ensemble playing. This can’t happen in person now, so we have had to invest heavily in moving this work online. There’s a vast array of activities for young people, older people, professional musicians, families happening every day, but remotely. Workshops, advice sessions, digital concert halls populated by people from across the North participating in musical activity with over 100 Sage Gateshead musicians.

Young people are preparing for their next grade exam, bands are devising and sharing work, older people are gathering in their weekly choir, mentoring and training sessions are running. This is just a fraction – over 50,000 people are involved every year. In Covid-world we’re trying as far as we can to keep some of this going. Just as with performance, online isn’t the same. But it has allowed musical life to continue.  And this is what’s crucially important – that young people can continue to progress in their musical studies, people who are isolated can meet up with others to pursue their interest, professional musicians get support. All of these things are vital in challenging times.

I have been struck by people telling me how important music is to them. A Future for Live Music in the North East asks people to say what music means to them, and what they are looking for in the future. Among the varied and individual responses, one which really struck me was: “music is essential as it provides solace in times of grief, joy in times of celebration. It brings people together to relive memories and produce new ones – it feeds the soul”. This reminded me of something our colleagues in the Chamber of Commerce often say to me – commerce is the lungs of the North East and culture is the soul.

We are ready for the next round of changes, determined to keep as much going as we can online, bringing people together, helping young people continue their music making, supporting musicians, streaming live from our stages. And eager to open our doors when it’s safe and the time is right.