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NEWCASTLE PIPING FESTIVAL - 22-24 March 2019

The second Newcastle Piping Festival took place to great acclaim in March, in various venues across the city and beyond. Following on from the success of the 2017 festival, this one promised to be a slightly bigger affair. Although hastily organised in the months since Christmas, a stellar line-up was promised, and did not fail to deliver a spectacular weekend of concerts, sessions, workshops and general piping socials.

The Literary and Philosophical Society on Westgate Road hosted the free opening concert on Friday lunchtime. The exam room quickly filled with pipers, enthusiasts and many curious members of the public as Iain Gelston opened the proceedings with a Half-Longs set accompanied beautifully by Sarah Tym on violin. They were followed by Chris Ormston, who impressed and delighted the audience with some amazing variation sets, played to perfection. Headlining the Friday concert were visitors Birgit Bornauw on French musette and Flemish pipes, and her partner Benjamin Macke on accordion. Their music is a wonderful mix of baroque, traditional and modern and had the audience enthralled. That was supposed to be the full line-up, but Anxo Lorenzo had literally just stepped off his flight from Madrid, hopped on a Metro and made it to the Lit & Phil in order to end proceedings with some thrilling Galician gaita. It was a perfect start to what promised to be a great weekend.

The next event on the calendar, and a risky departure from the 2017 festival, was the Friday evening session at a new venue – The North Terrace pub. Any fears that a session filled with so many different types of pipes might be a disaster were quickly dispelled, and the evening kicked off with a host of Northumbrian pipers in G, promptly joined by Birgit on Flemish pipes and Anxo on gaita. By 9pm the upstairs room was filled with musicians of every instrument, age and style, all contributing to a fun and enjoyable end to the first day.

After the Friday session there was a definite buzz around St. James’ & St. Basil’s church in Fenham, as the pipers and visitors began arriving in the morning. There was much discussion and chat, meeting old friends and new, and much inspection of pipes. Ross Ainslie arrived to take a lead helping out the Border pipers. Even the chairman ventured to bring his own set of Half-Longs to the party! The Young Pipers’ Group enjoyed the expertise of Kim Bull helping them with maintenance tips, and the workshops and talks continued throughout the afternoon with Birgit and Benjamin, the Pipemakers’ Co-Op, the Uilleann Pipers’ group, Chris Ormston, Donald Lindsay and Anxo Lorenzo all doing their bit to share their expertise, knowledge and wonderful music. The highlight of the afternoon came with the launch of the hotly anticipated Fourth Tune Book, ably presented, alongside a history of society publications, by Julia Say.

A brief break to grab a bite to eat was snatched, before the Grand Concert kicked off Saturday evening’s entertainment. Concert openers Sarah Tym and Iain Gelston started proceedings with a selection of tunes drawing heavily from the long tradition of Border piping alongside some newly composed pieces. Soon the vast nave of St James’ and St Basil’s was filled with the sound of Iain’s deeply resonant half-long/border pipes blending perfectly with Sarah’s sensitive fiddle playing. I hope we hear more from this interesting duo in the future. As well as playing a pivotal role in organising the festival, Andy May treated us to a selection of tunes on the Northumbrian smallpipes. Andy described Billy Pigg as a great influence on his piping, and then played Lark In The Clear Air, one of the most well-known pieces from Billy’s repertoire. Andy’s rendition was brilliantly executed, with sweet rich vibrato shaping the tune. One of the more unexpected tunes of the evening came from a commission Andy received for a tune based on an incident relating to the availability of custard. Uilleann piper Jarlath Henderson took the advice that one should always be able to sing the first verse of any air to its logical conclusion, and sang tenderly while the pipes provided accompaniment. His selection of Irish dance music was played to perfection, not rushed, and using the full range of technique that the Uilleann pipes afford to deliver an outstanding set.

Birgit Bornauw & Benjamin Macke brought a touch of virtuosity and originality in their interpretations of French and Flemish bagpipe music. Birgit is a piper from the Flemish part of Belgium, and played the musette de cour as well as the Flemish pipes (familiar to many from the paintings of Pieter Bruegel). Together with Benjamin on accordion, they played a selection of largely renaissance tunes. The delicate sound of the musette - a bagpipe with much in common with the local Northumbrian smallpipes – was combined very tastefully with Benjamin’s accordion, and when Birgit moved to the much more strident Flemish pipes, Benjamin added depth to the accompaniment on his “foot-bass” accordion.

After the audience caught their breath and their bar refreshments, Chris Ormston began the second half with his inimitable demonstration of the musicality and brilliance of the Clough tradition. Highlights from his set were two of the “big tunes” of the tradition - the variation sets Bonnie Pit Laddie and I Saw My Love Come Passing By Me. The second of these is a tune for which Chris is famous, and here he returned to it, filling it with his trademark glittering runs. He was ably followed by Ross Ainslie, who assaulted the church acoustics with some fantastically fiery Highland piping on the big pipes. Ross wasted no time on introductions, playing a selection of slower tunes with great expressiveness, and faster numbers punctuated by well-articulated gracing. Galicia in the north-western corner of Spain is home to the gaita, a striking-sounding bagpipe, played on this occasion by noted exponent, Anxo Lorenzo. He almost had a British audience dancing in the aisles with the joyous music of Galicia played to perfection. The concert was concluded with two wonderful sets by what promises to be an exciting new collaboration – Anxo, Jarlath, Ross and Andy – a combined maelstrom of some of the finest bagpipers around, backed up by Ian Stephenson on guitar. You can imagine that there were many smiling faces leaving church at the end of the night.

But it didn’t end there – a late session at The Globe pub continued the party for the pipers alongside many Newcastle based musicians until 2.30am. And what a party it was! The survivors’ session on Sunday, hosted in the display room at The Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum by Anne Moore, was packed and great fun, but there may have been a few sore heads.

Roll on next spring, when the third Newcastle Piping Festival is set to take place sometime in March 2020.

Edric Ellis