THE last time we saw Kathryn Tickell was at Bath where she was collaborating with the then festival director, pianist Joanna MacGregor, in a programme that bridged the different disciplines of folk and classical music.
They were playing a work composed by Kathryn for piano and the Northumbrian small pipes of which Kathryn is the UK’s leading exponent.
At a sold-out gig at the David Hall, she was playing with her current collaborators, the folk-classical group The Side – the brilliant cellist Louisa Tuck, principal cello with the Oslo Philharmonic, Ruth Wall, a classically trained harpist, and Amy Thatcher, who is a virtuoso on the accordion and as nifty-footed a clog dancer as you will ever see.
Each of Kathryn’s different groups and ensembles have shown the breadth and inspiration of this Northumbrian musical genius, whose repertoire ranges from the traditional tunes she learned from her father and grandfather, to her own compositions and arrangements by her collaborators. At South Petherton, these included works by Purcell, woven in with traditional and new tunes, and Ruth Wall playing her own arrangement for harp of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ haunting Farewell to Stromness, in a heartfelt tribute to the composer who died in March.
There were new reels and old tunes, a song (performed by Kathryn and Amy) based on a poem by Swinburne. Perhaps the most memorable piece of the evening was Yeavering, played by Louisa on cello and Kathryn on fiddle, a portrait of a hill on the edge of Cheviots, whose long history belies its bleakness, a place that has seen human activity for thousands of years and echoes with ancient memories.
Kathryn is almost as well-known for her discursive (and sometimes apparently rambling) anecdotes as for her music. She is teased by Amy, Ruth and Louisa, but the audience loves her stories. At the David Hall, she told a hilarious story about going to Buckingham Palace in 2009 with Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies, who was Master of the Queens Music, when she was presented with The Queen’s Medal for Music..
She has worked with ensembles such as the Royal Northern Sinfonia, curated a Percy Grainger concert at the Proms and was artistic director of the Festival of the North East.
She was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2015, the year in which she also became a Deputy Lieutenant of Northumberland. In 2013 she was BBC Radio 2’s Folk Musician of the Year, and her project Northumbrian Voices was Best Traditional Album in the Spiral Earth Awards. She founded the Young Musicians Fund at the Community Foundation, which has raised more than £100,000 for grants for young musicians in the North East.
In 2001, she played at the Last Night of The Proms celebrations, the first time the event had included traditional folk music. Other commissions and projects have included Northumbrian Fantasia for the National Youth Orchestra, and Jig Hop, with Folkestra (which she founded) and other artists for BT River of Music, part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Whatever she does, whether it is performing with an ever-changing assembly of instruments – including a giant Iron Age Celtic horn called a Carnyx – or getting a packed hall clapping and stamping their feet along with a ferociously fast fiddle tune, Kathryn Tickell is mesmerising and delightful.
This David Hall concert was no exception. She clearly likes the venue, with its warm acoustic – and the audience loves her. We look forward to her next concert there!