In duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, octets, nonets or as full ensemble of eleven, the world-class musicians of Music in the Round’s Ensemble 360 play always in breathtaking, spell-binding, heart-and-soul togetherness. In normal times, they dip, dash and dart all over the place, performing, too, nationally and internationally, in other illustrious orchestras and ensembles as well as working tirelessly to ensure the thrill of excellent live music involves staggering numbers of children and wider community groups at large. Covid stopped all that, of course, and ever since, musicians and live entertainers everywhere have been struggling to earn a living and keep afloat, as have all those who work with them behind the scenes. Some, most reluctantly, have had to take work elsewhere, the rest carry on the fight for survival.

Like Ensemble 360’s clarinetist Matt Hunt some may have welcomed the luxury of more time at home in the first lockdown months, but in spite of the pandemic’s ongoing constraints, there’s no keeping a good band down! Ever resourceful and determined to carry on their mission of bringing top quality music to all, Music in the Round put on a 36th dazzling May Festival in 2020, even with Sheffield’s Crucible venues closed. A cornucopia of mix ‘n’ match musical gems, chat and discussions moved online, featuring the vibrant playing of Ensemble 360 and revered guests in exciting programmes both for adults and children. 2021’s May Chamber Music Festival will likewise stream online from 11th-15th May, this time broadcast from the Crucible Studio, its home base, and available right through May to anyone anywhere.

If May’s too far off, six Up Close podcasts are already on offer, introduced by Radio 3’s Tom McKinney, programme manager, too, for Sheffield’s Music in the Round. Hour-long packages bring stories, conversations, readings and musings from Ensemble 360 musicians and guests, plus sparkling music, and advice for learners and professionals alike on how to practise and develop while having fun. There are musical treats from Adrian Wilson’s divine oboe with Henri Tomasi’s wonderful Evocations, from Matt Hunt’s mesmerizing reverberations and circlings in a 12-part multi-track version of Steve Reich’s NY Counterpoint, from Bach, dramatic Dvorak and striking Stravinsky and from Beethoven’s String Quartet Op 18 No 5, recorded in Sheffield last December by Ensemble 360 with a characteristic blended oneness of passion and virtuosity.

In a thoroughly uplifting and riveting account of lockdown experiences with Age Better Sheffield, clarinettist Matt Hunt and French horn player Naomi Atherton describe going with the flow, raw and spontaneous, as they shared all manner of unexpected interactions and musical improvisations with a most joyful older community, who experience, too, the joys of … tea trolley gigs! The power of music to join people so brilliantly in communal experience like this without need for words plays a crucial role in combating isolation and loneliness, and the strong hope is to develop such projects more widely. Naomi also explores in fascinating detail the versatile, brassy tubing of the horn, both with, and without, valves and mind-boggling arrays of confusing crooks.

Music scholars discuss the merits and benefits of MiR’s Bridge Scheme, a scheme that assists the launch of professional careers in music, while contemporary composers talk with Tom about the challenges of working on new classical commissions, and the constant struggle to get sufficient exposure for new classical pieces when both audiences and programmers are always pretty wary.

Beautiful readings from Ensemble 360’s own violinist Claudia Ajmone Marsan of various letters give keen insights into Beethoven’s personal life – what his father was like, how his deafness affected his behaviour, his thoughts on war, and what Mozart said on first meeting him. Then, from his home in Spain, cellist Bernard Gregor Smith of the Lindsay Quartet, founding predecessors of the prestigious Music in the Round, reads from his memoir A Quintessential Quartet. As he tells of life in The Lindsay Quartet and how the four players achieved their “synchronized individuality” he makes particularly fond and humorous mention of the late, great, much loved and missed Peter Cropper, his vociferous violinist colleague, whose sincere, passionate way of conveying his music’s emotional stories and journeys resulted in him contorting his face with grotesque gestures that transformed him into a mobile gargoyle as he played!

All sorts of goodies are on offer in the Podcasts, whetting the appetite for the online Festival 2021, which will launch at 11.00am on May 11th. Music in the Round being a charity that depends on the support of audiences, donations are very, very welcome, while all hope to get back to being very live very soon.

Eileen Caiger Gray
The podcasts and festival are available online by following this link.