ROYAL Northern Sinfonia had a lot to celebrate as it launched the first of Sage Gateshead’s New Beginnings series with a live stream concert.

Not only was it the orchestra’s first appearance after a long winter of lockdown, but also a chance to introduce their new signing, Designate Principal Conductor Designate Dinis Sousa. And it was a debut in Hall One of Middlesbrough-born operatic superstar Dame Sarah Connolly.

Before the evening began in earnest there was a time of reflection for the losses of so many loved ones and latterly the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, who accompanied the Queen when she officially opened Sage Gateshead in 2005.

The orchestra paid tribute to Prince Philip with a heartfelt account of account of Edward Elgar’s Elegy.

The programme entitled Dawn and Dusk opened fittingly with the sunrise as depicted in Haydn’s Le Matin Morning.

The strings painted a pastel wash of dawn's first light, before conveying dazzling rays of sunshine bursting over the horizon. The enthusiasm of the players was infectious, with joyous exchanges. There were scintillating passages from flaut Fiona Kelly and a cheerful solo by bassoonist Stephen Reay, while guest leader Maria Włoszczowska, played with exquisite poise.

Hector Berlioz’s song cycle Les nuits d’ete takes in the full gamut of emotions, from love to profound loss.

Dame Sarah gave a commanding performance, conveying feelings of agony and ecstasy with a visceral power. Highlights included Spectre de la rose which oozing ardour and the lovingly drawn out heartrending Absence.

L’Île inconnue, in which a sailor invites a young beauty to set out on a voyage on his ship to a land of her choice was sung with gusto and concluded a thrilling recital. Sousa anticipated every turn of phrase to shape a perfect accompaniment.

The dawn of a new day was also depicted in a rare outing of Lili Boulanger’s beautifully impressionistic D’un matin de printemps.

The first woman to have won the coveted Prix de Rome (a prize Berlioz only achieved after four attempts), her life was cut short by illness at the age of only 24. One can only imagine the music that would have flowed from her pen had she lived longer.

The evening was rounded off with Prokofiev’s exuberant 'Classical' first symphony. Light-hearted and witty, it was driven to a scorching climax.

It was an auspicious start for the engaging Sousa, who has a clear rapport with the players. Just what the spirits needed.