The sound of gravel crunching underfoot split the silence. Dandelion heads were still tightly clenched, ensconced in dewy leaves. The sky was waking, edged in pink and orange. As we entered the cemetery the air was filled with bird calls and cries. A blackbird sung from a blossom-clad branch; a robin issued a warning as we edged towards his tree.
The large windows of Sheffield’s Samuel Worth Chapel were lit by candles. We took our seats in a circle, aware of the changing light around us. A French horn played from the wings, competing with the song thrush that had joined the avian choir.
Contrary to appearances, this was not some sort of Masonic ritual; it was a sunrise concert hosted by Music in the Round, Sheffield’s annual chamber music festival.
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Having lived on screens for the best part of two years, many of us are increasingly open to intense sensory experiences at live events. Concerts are combining visual elements (Music in the Round had a series of events themed around composers and painters) and, in the case of Unusual Ingredients, pairing sound with different foods and tastes.
Changing concert schedules adds another layer to the experience. Ensemble 360 took us through a thoughtful programme, carefully curated by composer Helen Grime, with pieces linked to the dawn. These included Pablo Casals’s Song of the Birds, Akira Nishimura’s Fantasia and Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ String Quartet (Op 76, No 4).
Like the concerts that take place elsewhere across Sheffield during the festival, the performers all play ‘in the round’ ie in the centre of the audience. It makes recitals more intimate and accessible, as do the short introductions given by the musicians before the performances. Newcomers to classical concerts might find it hard to believe that engaging with the audience directly in this way is still relatively unusual in chamber music recitals – when Music in the Round began the practice in 1984 it was nothing short of radical. It works particularly well in Sheffield’s main venue, The Crucible, where visitors famously encircle snooker tables for the World Championship.