This week’s debate: Does Sheffield need its own orchestra and classical venue?

The Festival wouldn't have been complete without some brilliant brass, cr Scott Hukins
The Festival wouldn't have been complete without some brilliant brass, cr Scott Hukins

‘It’d be a confident act that affirms our cultural position’

Penelope Baddeley, Sheffield Harmony

Recently I popped into Sheffield Cathedral and by chance caught Sheffield Youth Orchestra rehearsing for a concert. A soprano soloist’s voice soared beautifully in the wonderful architectural space and I was enveloped by the thrilling sound of an orchestra. It struck me how lucky I was to live in a city which embraced creativity and encouraged musical excellence.

It felt remarkable to witness these able, talented young musicians come together to create a positive, pleasurable and uplifting experience for themselves and their audience – an important act of community, as well as of creativity.

A decision to create a full- time professional orchestra with its own custom-built venue in Sheffield is to be encouraged and applauded. When a professional orchestra embeds in a city it provides access to a high-quality musical experience for all its citizens, whether these are ticket-paying concert-goers or local children benefiting from outreach programmes.

It will inspire, raise aspirations for the musically gifted and most likely improve standards of musical attainment via typical orchestral engagement in education and training. Moreover it would be a bold act of confidence for our city: developing and cementing our position as a thriving, dynamic cultural centre – already so apparent with our successful theatres which generate significant revenue.

We only have to look at the work of the Manchester-based Halle Orchestra to understand how such a top symphonic ensemble can function effectively as a great ambassador for its home city and it would benefit Sheffield to see our city similarly promoted via the arts.

Creating a purpose-built venue is also a laudable, ambitious statement of confidence by Sheffield. As a member of Sheffield Harmony, several times I’ve been lucky enough to perform at the internationally-acclaimed Sage in Gateshead which has amazing world-class acoustics. I’d love to see any new venue emulate The Sage, which is home to an orchestra (the Royal Northern Sinfonia) but is also a hub for musical education for the community, committed to diversity and inclusion, and providing entertainment that covers a wide range of genres and cultures.

‘Build a new library with performance space’ Michael Hannon, Abbeydale Singers Chamber Choir

Sheffield is one of the UK’s most vibrant musical cities, and also has an enviable national reputation for its inspiring musical outreach, across our diverse community. But we have no first-class venue for classical concerts and dance and soon, if the Central Library is to be sold, our main education and performance providers will be administratively homeless.

Mike Tipler is a teacher and amateur actor/singer who is a member of the Dore Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Mike is pictured in the Winter Garden in Sheffield.

Mike Tipler is a teacher and amateur actor/singer who is a member of the Dore Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Mike is pictured in the Winter Garden in Sheffield.

Deborah Chadbourn’s proposal for a new 600-seat facility with integrated space for teaching and learning comes at a crucial time. We lag far behind other UK cities, some much smaller, which have developed exciting venues, such as Cast in Doncaster, the Sage in Gateshead and Lakeside Arts in Nottingham, all stimulating passionate momentum in their creative communities. While Sheffield University’s PEARL project, including a 600-seater performance venue on campus, has been cancelled, the university is keen to contribute to planning for a new performance space.

Deborah’s proposed venue would need to include rehearsal space for local amateur groups as well as national ensembles, teaching and practice rooms and a modern, flexible performance space. It should also provide a new home for the education and performance providers.

Creating a new flagship Central Library/performing arts centre, integrating the best of a modern public library and archive services with a new venue, supported by cafés, restaurants, bookshops and other retail outlets, would be a tremendous boost to the cultural future of our city and, not least, drive the creation of a City of Sheffield Orchestra.

We have the talent, passion and flair; we need the investment and location. Above all we need the imagination, resolve and leadership to make it happen.

Nat Johnson is a Sheffield-based singer-songwriter, who is taking part in a project at Off The Shelf linked to the work of the Bronte sisters. She has written a Favourite Things column for the Telegraph and one of her choices is Endcliffe Park.

Nat Johnson is a Sheffield-based singer-songwriter, who is taking part in a project at Off The Shelf linked to the work of the Bronte sisters. She has written a Favourite Things column for the Telegraph and one of her choices is Endcliffe Park.

‘Venue would have to be a versatile hub’ Kathryn Gasic, Co-founder, Opera On Location

Sheffield has a very vibrant and diverse music scene and has an abundance of amateur orchestras and choirs. It also has a resident chamber group in Ensemble 360 and regular visits from The Hallé – it’s brilliant!

However, one thing we don’t have is a suitably sized purpose-built venue with fantastic acoustics.

Not only would this be wonderful for all the local amateur orchestras and choirs, but I truly believe that it would encourage more professional visiting artists and ensembles to Sheffield.

Should the new venue go ahead, I think it’s critical that it becomes a hub within the city.

It should host a diverse range of activities and be open to the people of Sheffield at least six days a week – maybe with a café or meeting place, rehearsal spaces available to hire, meeting rooms for conferences and events, the list goes on… I believe that this is something we would all benefit from hugely and it would without doubt enhance Sheffield’s reputation nationally not just for classical music, but music and the arts in general.

It is quite well known that Sheffield is the largest city without its own professional orchestra, and in an ideal world of course, I would love there to be one.

However, it’s a mammoth task and something that takes an extremely long time to come to fruition, never mind building a reputation for the orchestra as well.

For me, I think establishing a purpose-built performance space would be the first step and to see how things progress from there.

‘City misses out on some fine concerts’ Nat Johnson, Singer-songwriter’

Sheffield is often missed out of touring bands’ schedules because of our lack of a great mid-size venue, and I suppose the same is true of classical music here as well.

In the last two years I’ve really enjoyed the Classical Weekend festival with short concerts around the city – lots of variety and accessible and affordable. Thanks to them I’ve seen brilliant performances from Sheffield’s choirs and ensembles alongside world-famous special guests. But usually when I’ve wanted to see special performances and new collaborations at other times I’ve had to travel elsewhere. So while one of the nice things about the Classical Weekend is the use of all kinds of Sheffield spaces, a classical venue would be great for attracting more special events and renowned performers, providing more first-class entertainment and inspiration for all.

What stood out most for me in last week’s Telegraph story though, was how planners sounded committed to integrating learning and teaching into the building. I’m especially keen on the idea of a classical venue in Sheffield if it were able to offer affordable music education for children. If the Tories stay in power then music and the rest of the arts will continue to be pushed out of the mainstream education system. Instrument tuition should be available to all children, not just those who can afford private lessons. Another good thing about the Classical Weekend was how much tyoung musicians from Sheffield and the surrounding areas were involved so it would be good to see them have somewhere to call home and perform regularly too.

‘Where there’s a will there is always a way’ Michael Tipler, Classical music lover, amateur singer’

What a rich and distinguished history Sheffield has in terms of the arts, with a heritage that dates right hack to the 19th century when great names like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Paganini, Liszt and Jenny Lind were visitors.

Sheffield’s music-lovers today have much to be grateful for and to enjoy, not least the City Hall. But its acoustic is notoriously variable, subject to dead areas or annoying reverberations, depending on where you’re sitting. I’ve seen some superb musicals on the main thrust stage at the Crucible but the sound has to be ‘managed’ with technology.

The Studio, home of Music In The Round, can work acoustically but is too small and often sold out for an attractive programme. The Lyceum hosts opera, ballet and musicals as well as drama. It has a genuine opera house acoustic, and an orchestral concert with musicians on stage might make a splendid impression – but to my knowledge it hasn’t been tried, and why would Sheffield Theatres consider it when the City Hall is the city’s ‘concert venue’?

Truth is, we don’t have a properly designed and equipped concert hall for classical music, of the right size for our times and we don’t have – a city of this size – our own resident professional orchestra.

What we do have – City Hall, Crucible, restored Lyceum – were all given us in their time by individuals of vision, enthusiasm and commitment, whose energy and determination saw their dreams of enriching the lives of the citizens of Sheffield realised.

Can we hope now for a visionary culture officer to listen to Deborah Chadbourn, talk to Classical Sheffield, and seize this opportunity? To inspire others and find the right partners? To bring us a centre for the arts? For the arts generally and classical music in particular, times have always been hard.

But impressive developments are happening in the city. Where there’s a will....