22-piece orchestra to play concert in hard hats in former air raid shelter below Newcastle

By Ben Miller | 21 October 2014

Audiences to wear hard hats as orchestra plays concert in former coal waggonway and air raid shelter

A photo of a group of classical musicians performing inside a darkened tunnel
Four of The Underground Orchestra's musicians rehearse new work From Mine to Tyne© Steve Messam 2014
Beneath the rumble of Newcastle, the fully-preserved 19th century waggonway of the city’s Victoria Tunnel immediately lends itself to heritage fans and those with a taste for the subterranean. Still, squeezing an entire orchestra in seems a somewhat unusual use of the space.

Musicians and listeners will have to wear hard hats – donated by a safety equipment manufacturer – when The Underground Orchestra play there this evening. Launched 20 years ago as an evening class, this excellent amateur ensemble now has eight branches across the north-east. And the performers will don head torches as they play, illuminated by a light installation created by artist Steve Messam.

“The final installation will run almost 50 metres down the tunnel with a 22-piece orchestra inside,” he explains.

“There is a deep-rooted culture among the northern counties of mining and working underground – so the project quite literally gets under the skin of what makes the north."

This is the first of several outlandish settings for their symphonies. Resident composer Michael Betteridge’s music will echo around the Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnel, York Nuclear Bunker, Cleveland Ironstone Mine and the Honister Slate Mine during the next year, with all five compositions performed as an Underground Symphony at the Sage Gateshead in Autumn 2015.

“At each site the orchestra will perform a bespoke programme of music drawn from a rich history and catalogue, from Avison to more contemporary composers," outlines Messam.

“The very nature of the venues means that the standard format of presenting an orchestra in front of an audience is out of the question.

“Some performances, like the Victoria Tunnel one, see a very linear orchestra. Others may be in the round or even as a promenade.

“The project also looks at the visual impact of the venues - using light and projections, transforming the event from something interesting to something amazing.”

There is, indeed, a distinctly Newcastle-sounding title to a couple of the pieces planned for the tunnel: Betteridge, who’ll be writing site-specific movements for each site, has created From Mine to Tyne, the fourth movement after an opening of Andy Jackson’s Byker Hill.

“We love performing in unusual places,” says Sheila Ryan, the bassoonist and co-ordinator of this show.

“I had visited the Victoria Tunnel a few years ago and thought it would be such an exciting and unusual place to perform.

“As the Orchestra has started to rehearse this special piece we have found it deeply atmospheric and moving, starting with just tapping the keys and strings of the instruments, depicting the sound of the coal wagons and the working life of the Tunnel, incorporating an old folk song, then changing to express its role as an air raid shelter in World War II with sirens and bombs, leading on to a more peaceful finale”.

“We usually lead guided tours for up to 15 people at a time to explore the history of the Victoria Tunnel,” says Clive Goodwin, of the Ouseburn Trust, alluding to the increased footfall the tunnel is accommodating for the orchestra’s opening leg of the tour.

“This is a very unusual event that will interpret the heritage in a completely different way, and bring out the special acoustics and experience of going underground.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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