Music in the Round has presented the annual Sheffield Chamber Music Festival every year since 1984 in the Crucible Studio Theatre. Last year it came from musicians’ homes; this year it comes from some of Music in the Round’s venue homes across the country in Barnsley, Doncaster and Portsmouth, as well as live from the Crucible Studio. Running over five days from 11-15 May 2021, it featured 24 events, ranging from performances and family concerts to conversations with the musicians.

Presenting a Festival during a pandemic is challenging, so Executive Director Jo Towler takes us through the week, starting on Monday 10 May, the day before it all starts…

Monday 10 May


Watch the festival on YouTube

This sums up how much effort has already going into making this Festival amazing. We have been pre-recording events to broadcast online since mid-March, so it feels like we’ve been working on it for weeks before we’ve even started!

Today is punctuated with a flurry of questions flying around the team, hastily re-arranged schedules being issued and a certain amount of trepidation of what we’ve forgotten to plan for, as it has been so long since we presented live music, and two years since the last Festival in the Crucible Studio. So it’s fair to say my stomach feels a little tense as I deal with last-minute fracas as well as respond to some emails so my inbox isn’t completely over-flowing when I get back to my ‘desk’ next Monday. (Out of Office: turned on)

We are presenting the Festival on a new ‘microsite’ attached to our main website, which is much easier for people to navigate. However, creating it over the last couple of months has led to a certain amount of teeth-gnashing from my colleagues in the marketing department as we try and get it working and looking great in time for tomorrow. Even today there are issues with the chat function, but we think we have a workaround… It’s worth the effort though, as it looks great, and hopefully it’ll be a lot easier for audiences round the world to engage with our events.

It’s the calm before the storm. We can’t set up all the technical live-stream equipment and microphones in the Studio until tomorrow, so it means we have a frantic morning ahead of us to get everything in place for our first live-stream at 1pm. What will keep me awake tonight? Not this known-known of a busy morning ahead, as we have a fantastic team who will make it happen. No, it’s the unknown-unknowns that lie ahead that will wake me up at 3am…

Tuesday 11 May

Day 1 of the Festival done! A few technical issues for the first live-stream at 1pm meant we had a bit of a bumpy start, but my colleagues were fantastic at resolving it swiftly and we went online only 10 minutes late. It was wonderful to hear live music, and it was inevitably a rather emotional occasion for everyone involved to be back in our ‘home’ Crucible Studio Theatre. Everyone has been accommodating with the need to test, sanitise and wear masks – it’s amazing how swiftly we have all grown used to this new way of living. As well as seeing our musicians, it has been lovely for the team of staff to get together again, and we have already adopted the Studio foyer as our ‘office’. Rounds of tea-making and general banter punctuate the general Festival business, reminding us what we’ve missed in the last year and more. Tonight we celebrate by going for a pint together – typically British, the threat of rain will not deter us!

Wednesday 12 May

Today we opened with Concerteenies, a performance aimed at babies and toddlers. It’s so difficult for presenter Polly Ives to engage through a camera, rather than with rows of faces of young people and their grown ups, but we want to give a flavour of what we would normally offer during the Festival. The new unknowns of today were live-streaming a concert from Portsmouth Guildhall, one of our partner venues around the country. Lots of nervousness as to whether the systems and technology would all connect, and lots of testing during the day, but apart from a few issues with sound it was another successful event. Sheffield Chamber Music Festival on the road for the first time ever, but hopefully not the last.

Thursday 13 May

Very full-on day today! Three live-streams in one day has kept everyone on their toes, but by this third day we are also quite used to presenting an online Festival and everything goes well. Every event has a live chat, so we monitor this to welcome those watching and respond to any comments. Much hilarity from the team as we discover the list of banned words entered by the web developers; and curiosity as to why the word ‘pass’ has been automatically altered to ‘p*ss’. We’re not sure we’re giving the right impression when all we want to say is “we’ll p*ss on your comments to the musicians!” We have another evening out afterwards with everyone, and thankfully the rain holds off so we can enjoy a well-earned glass or two of wine.

Friday 14 May

Today is another first: a Zoom event with the Friends of Music in the Round. We’ve invited them to chat with a few of our musicians, and we’re not quite sure how it’s going to go – what questions the Friends will ask (could be anything from ‘what did they have for breakfast that morning’ to ‘how do we cure COVID’), and whether the musicians will show up on Zoom. We’re all logging on from our homes and hotel rooms, so there’s no way of knowing if they’ve been distracted/practising/in a bar somewhere! Thankfully they’re all online in good time, and we have a really interesting chat with some great questions from the Friends about how different it is to be playing to even a few people compared to just staring down a camera lens. A lovely end to the day.

Saturday 15 May

It’s the last day! Seems to have come round very quickly, and yet we have spent so many hours in the Studio over the last five days. Family concert this morning was fabulous – again Polly presenting to a camera instead of hundreds of children – but we have a good laugh and the musicians all join in the light-hearted fun. This evening sees nine musicians on stage, the largest group yet, and it will be a huge sound that fills the Studio to the immense joy of all of us fortunate enough to hear it live. After-concert fizz will celebrate a fantastic five days, and plans are already being laid for what we can present in Sheffield Chamber Music Festival 2022 – bring it on!


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