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Ensemble 360: A dawn chorus worth getting out of bed for

An early morning Music in the Round recital at Sheffield’s Samuel Worth Chapel is a delight, even for this night owl

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.

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This was the second time in a fortnight that I had set my alarm for 4.15am on a Sunday. Being naturally more of an owl than a lark, this is not a time of day generally witnessed. However, during spring months I attempt to drag myself from slumber to hear the delicious sound of the dawn chorus. After the initial ‘why on earth did I think this was a good idea’ grumble, the thrill of hearing nature’s early risers usually soon soothes any bleary-eyed blues. Birding apps like ChirpOMatic and Merlin help with identification, something that past musicians who were known to attempt to transcribe birdsong (from Mozart to Messiaen) would have surely loved. 

One of the most famous composers to take inspiration from our feathered friends was Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose sesquicentenary is celebrated this year. The Lark Ascending, as the title suggests, evokes a soaring bird through a lush violin solo with orchestra. It is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written, and not for nothing has once again recently topped Classic FM’s Hall of Fame (as voted by over 150,000 members of the public).

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But there’s much more to explore by Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). His varied symphonies consider both the bustle of London and the horrors of war, and go far further than his reputation as an English pastoral composer often allows. The Lark Ascending will probably always be his best-known concertante work, although the Oboe Concerto is a close second.

There’s a chance to hear both in this year’s Proms; Pekka Kuusisto flies with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Collon (August 26) and oboist Nicholas Daniel is the soloist with the Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by Dinis Sousa (August 14).

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter here

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