Preview: Sheffield Chamber Music Festival

Sheffield is known for many things but chamber music isn’t generally one of them. Andy Murray speaks to a festival director trying to change all that

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It’s widely acknowledged that Sheffield has a fine heritage of pop and rock music, but a less celebrated fact is that, since 1984, it’s been home to a popular annual festival celebrating chamber music. This year’s run of the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival is the first to be overseen by Jo Towler, incoming executive director of organisers Music in the Round.

Towler says: “It’s about chamber music in its absolutely widest sense, alongside the traditional string quartet, piano quintets and so on. That kind of up close and personal setting can apply to any sort of music. We try to have as broad a range as possible and I’ve been really keen to make sure that we keep expanding what that can be.”

Sure enough, the 2019 programme features appearances by turntablist Shiva Feshareki, an interactive history of classical music led by comedian Rainer Hersch and a storytelling event with Hugh Lupton soundtracked live by folk trio Leveret. Some events are aimed directly at younger audiences, including relaxed “concerteenies” shows suitable for toddlers. Towler says: “By doing an eclectic programme and linking in with other arts organisations, we hope to get the message out that there’s something for everybody in the festival.”

The line-up also takes in a musical celebration of the extraordinary life of Noor Inayat Khan. “Now there’s an interesting character,” Towler says. “Here you have the daughter of an Indian family who is studying with amazing composers in Paris and then she becomes a spy during the war for Britain and unfortunately she gets caught. That’s going to be an amazing insight into her life, as a composer but also as a spy.”

This notion of putting a human face to the discipline of chamber music is typical of what the festival aims to achieve. “Obviously that’s quite a specific case of telling somebody’s story, but that’s what we try and do at all our events – to provide some of that insight into the music and the stories behind it, how it was written, where it was written, why it was written.”

In recent years a bedrock of the festival has been Music in the Round’s Ensemble 360, a hugely versatile 11-piece outfit based at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio Theatre.

“Our musicians are great at speaking to audiences,” Towler says. “The audience will have programme notes for the more technical side of things if people want to get deep and dirty with the music.

“On a more personal level, though, the musicians talk about why they’ve programmed it and what it means to them, to try and engage people with the music.

“We want to get away from that whole them and us situation that tends to happen when you have your orchestra up on a platform and the audience just file in and clap and then leave again.”

The festival is also bringing events to legendary Sheffield venues such as the Leadmill and Yellow Arch Studios.

“We’re trying to take chamber music out of the traditional theatre setting and take it out and about. There’s an amazing folk scene here in Sheffield. The Arctic Monkeys started here, too. It’s a really musical city and we feel part of the make-up of the whole city in terms of music-making.”

2019 Sheffield Chamber Music Festival, 10-18 May, various venues 

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