It's a bright afternoon in the summer holidays and the concourse of the Sage Gateshead is awash with excitable children rushing around and bashing out tunes on the foyer's piano while mums and dads look on from behind their coffee cups. In a glass-fronted rehearsal room at the top of the stairs a man tinkles away on the ivories while his 14-year-old daughter plays Pokémon Go on her smartphone. At a glance they seem very much like one of the families I’d seen downstairs, except there’s one major difference... That man is the world-class pianist and conductor, Lars Vogt, preparing to lead the Royal Northern Sinfonia into their next Classical Season. Sadly he’d closed the lid by the time I entered the room and I was denied my sneak preview but with the flash of his smile and a warm handshake, I knew I was in the presence of a truly remarkable individual.
Born in Düren, Germany, Lars began playing the piano at just six years old and has gone on to become one of the world’s great pianists (top 10 for sure). In the course of his career he’s performed with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and collaborated with the likes of Sir Simon Rattle, Mariss Jansons and Claudio Abbado. His list of favourite venues to perform in – the Royal Albert Hall, the Carnegie Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – is a young musician’s dream. He’s au fait with Mozart, a dab hand with Tchaikovsky and a master of Beethoven. So I presumed he’d be suave, pretentious and sporting a smoking jacket. I couldn't have been more wrong. As i took my seat in the cafe with the jean-clad composer, I felt immediately at ease.
Classical music... It’s for real grown ups who know their half- Windsor from their Prince Albert tie right? Those who know their adagio from their allegro? Their D minor from their E major? Well, not necessarily. It’s for people who love good music. For people who appreciate musical talent. For people who want to listen to the rhythm, tap their feet and have a fantastic night out. For people like you and me. It might surprise you to learn that classical music didn’t come naturally to Lars either. It was something he had to learn to love, but he assures us that it’s worth the effort.
‘I’m not from a family of musicians so classical music wasn’t really at home in that sense,’ he says. ‘I had a very good teacher at the local music school in Düren. She felt that she saw some talent right at the beginning and was really supportive. She wanted me to get to know the great pianists, so every week she brought me a a tape of some pianist that she felt I should listen to. Sometimes I listened to them, sometimes I didn’t, but then there was a piece that really stuck to me. It was the last Mozart piano concerto. I really liked the piece and listened to it again and again and again and it became an addiction, and when you’ve got the first thing to hang onto in classical music you can develop. There are 27 other piano concertos by Mozart, just listen to any of them.’
Step by step Lars taught himself to love all the great masters – Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius – and this season he’ll be performing his first ever Mahler symphony at the Sage Gateshead. It unlocked a new skill for the musician, the ability to discover (what he describes as) ‘the very personal message that classical music has to offer’. ‘It’s not screaming in your face and wanting to please in every way,’ he says, ‘It’s a piece of art that has something to say about every aspect of life, even the difficult aspects.’
Now he’s on a mission with the Royal Northern Sinfonia to unlock this joy for others and to tackle the stigma associated with classical music. ‘To have a world-class orchestra playing in a world-class hall in NewcastleGateshead is brilliant,’ Lars says, ‘but we need to make the statement that we are your orchestra and this music belongs to everybody. It’s not an elitist thing, everybody can grasp it, can get it and can get a lot out of it – of that I am completely convinced. We just have to bring this message across whenever we can, wherever we can.’
In an attempt to make classical music more accessible, the programme for the Royal Northern Sinfonia Classical Season 2016/17 contains some rather surprising additions. Yes it has its fair share of Brahms and Beethoven (and, much to his delight, Lars will be playing the Mozart concerto that first made him fall in love with classical music), but there’s also Hungarian gypsy dances, Abba, the Beatles and West End favourites.
‘I love listening to that stuff in my free time,’ Lars laughs. ‘I wouldn’t want to play it as much, but everything is allowed – everything that is fun and that people enjoy. The concerts – I’m not just talking about myself, but the orchestra, the guest artists and the people who come here – are really world-class. Every programme has a host of pieces that you can really hang on to and really enjoy, even if you don’t know anything about classical music.’
Sage Gateshead are also pioneering a number of schemes to appeal to a wider range of the community. In addition to The Snowman performances at Christmas (a North East tradition) and Classics 4 Kids concerts, they’re offering free tickets for Gateshead residents who’ve never been to a classical music concert, £5 tickets for under 18s and the unemployed, and £5 tickets for under 30s with a free bottle of Heineken per concert – you can’t go wrong.
So perhaps it’s time to reconsider? Maybe, after all, classical music could be for you. We think it’s about time we started making the most of having this extraordinary orchestra and fantastic venue right on our doorstep, and finally get rid of those out-dated stereotypes.
Lars Vogt has been nominated for the Artist of the Year prize at the annual prestigious Gramophone Classical Music Awards. You can vote for him at www.gramophone.co.uk until 31 July – fingers crossed!