Ruth Currie brought  The Sage Gateshead’s Regional Youth Folk Ensemble Folkestra to Spain for a  five day performance tour.

The Rain in Spain

Ten members of the Folkestra group, aged 14 to 18, spent five days dodging the rain, much to their surprise, in an uncharacteristically wet start to Spring in the Spanish capital. For the Sage Gateshead, this tour is part of a programme  of high profile performances which has taken the group to the stage of the Conservative Party Conference, and a Proms concert at the RAH in July 2008.

For the British Council School the visit forms part of an active international musical life which in the last five years has taken students to New York, Washington, Beijing, Shanghai, London and Liverpool, and has received groups from Connecticut, Shanghai, Beijing, the Scottish Borders, the UK and  Milan. The school has a long standing link with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and an especially close relationship with Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets, London, whose Head of Music is Peter Romhany, and together the two schools successfully bid for EU funding in a Socrates Comenius project with the Reykjanesbaer Music School in Iceland as partner.

In 2005 I attended the NAME Conference at the Sage Gateshead. A major incentive for attending was to see the landmark building at first hand, and the trip was worth it simply on that level. I had also planned to meet up with Joan-Albert Serra, Head of Instrumental Studies at the Gateshead centre, who is very highly regarded colleague in music education in Spain.  When I heard and saw Folkestra under David Oliver’s direction we started talking about them coming to perform in Madrid. As is our custom, the school has acted as a hub for this visit and has facilitated links with local partners so that Folkestra have had access to a wide variety of audiences in different settings.

Intercultural dialogue

The group’s first full day in Madrid started with two concerts for primary pupils from state schools near the British Council School. The local education authority of Pozuelo de Alarcón supports a regular programme of educational concerts in a 300 seat concert hall in the Municipal Music & Dance School building. Over the years the children hear a wide range of instrumental groupings and styles, but this was the first time they had seen the melodeon and the Northumbrian Smallpipes and certainly hearing English folk the music live was a new experience.

The children were invited to have their say, and there was a steady stream of interested and interesting questions to the group. The children were struck by the group’s ability to play everything from memory, by their cohesive nature and their ability to start every set off impeccably without a conductor. The tour’s musical director, Lillias Kinsman-Blake, was very much present not on stage but sitting in the audience, knowing that the preparation had all been done at home.

The same evening the teenagers from the north of England met an adult group of Spanish folk musicians. The dulzaina, a double-reed pipe, traditional drums, pipes and a shepherd’s flute played with three fingers of one hand were among the instruments played and the expert Jeremías Diego Fraile gave a fascinating explanation of the historical and geographical circumstances which have helped to spread the instruments around Spain. After the two groups had performed to each other for much longer than planned, the locals ended up teaching their visitors the Jota and other dances, and the visitors taught their hosts some English folk dances.

Art and music

The morning of the second day was spent at the Prado art gallery.

The afternoon took the group to the British Council School for the first time. During an open class the Folkestra players skilfully arranged one of their tunes for the school players including violins, guitars, and ‘cellos and by the end of the session the piece was ready for the next day’s concert. It was refreshing for the school’s young violinists to see their near contemporaries playing with such obvious enjoyment and it was a challenge to prepare to perform from memory.

The school premises are shared with the British Council English language teaching arm in the evenings, and the audience of 120 teenagers of the Somosaguas Teaching Centre evening concert attend  many different Spanish day schools. The cultural and linguistic aspects of the event were reinforced by photos of Gateshead and brief spoken introductions by the players.

Even more music followed as Folkestra led a multinational group of musicians at Finbar’s Irish bar in the city centre.

The magnificent Royal Palace was the high point of sightseeing on the third day, after which the group returned to the school. 150 students squashed into the school’s main foyer which served as an alternative to the washed out garden which was the planned venue, and admired the Folkestra set, which began with the tune prepared the day before including twenty school pupils. The kitchen staff found a perch on the stairs, and even the security guard took some time out to enjoy the music.

The evening session was a repeat of the day before, with a slightly younger teenage audience of 130 language students. The Folkestra group played unaware that they were making history in a small way: they are the first young musicians from the UK to perform for the Somosaguas Teaching centre students.

Folkestra’s last day started early with packing and a taxi to the school and short concerts for Primary and then for the Early Years children, about 400 altogether. The school enjoys the luxury of having all three sections on the same site, and visitors are always invited to play for the younger children. The openness and enthusiasm of the 3 and

4 years olds make them a very enjoyable audience to play for.

This tour has been entirely positive for the school and for our local authority and other partners. Folkestra have generated an interest in English folk music and in instruments which are generally unfamiliar here, and their playing at seven different performances to a total audience of more than 1,000 was always of an excellent standard. It has been a pleasure to welcome a group of such enthusiastic players who are also such charming people.

I have been explaining to my students that it has taken three years for us to make this visit happen and I have used this as an example that in life the best things often take time to get, but that they are certainly worth the wait. I hope it will not be so long before we see another group from The Sage Gateshead in Madrid.