Interview with Richard Blackledge: How Sheffield’s strength lies in its music-making

Deborah Chadbourn Executive Director of Music In The Round
Deborah Chadbourn Executive Director of Music In The Round

Deborah’s eclectic journey from Cabaret Voltaire to Music In The Round executive boss.

There are about 74,000 children living in Sheffield - and, if Deborah Chadbourn has her way, every last one will have the chance to get involved in music.

Deborah Chadbourn Executive Director of Music In The Round

Deborah Chadbourn Executive Director of Music In The Round

“That’s a big aim, but it’s the right aim because it absolutely doesn’t exclude anybody,” says Deborah, executive director of the city’s Music In The Round group.

“We’ve got so much to get over in the city in terms of polarity and inequality.”

Formed in the 1980s, Music In The Round is the largest promoter of chamber music outside London, praised by BBC Radio 3 for ‘revolutionising’ the way audiences listen.

Its forte is an informal, and informative, style of performance, explaining how the music is made, through concerts and sessions led by the resident group, Ensemble 360.

We used to rehearse next to Pulp in a derelict building off the Wicker. The Leadmill was a fantastic place to go every Thursday night

A partnership has also been formed with the Sheffield Music Hub, which has a remit to nurture children’s musical potential. “About 50 per cent of what we do now is with young people – whether it’s family work or schools work,” Deborah explains.

She freely admits that classical music was not her background ‘whatsoever’ when she was asked to help lead Music In The Round by its visionary founder, violinist Peter Cropper.

“We had a coffee and Peter said ‘I’ve never heard of you’. Musicians always do that, I’ve discovered this now – their community is very networked.

“I told him I was quite a back-office person, and my job is facilitating other people to do what they do really well.

Deborah Chadbourn Executive Director of Music In The Round

Deborah Chadbourn Executive Director of Music In The Round

“But I said it sounded like an interesting challenge. That was eight years ago, and I’m still there.”

She admits to using the term ‘chamber music’ quite sparingly these days, however.

“It sounds so much like you need a degree. It does put people off. That distilled kind of classical music is all about connections and communication.

“Peter always used to talk about making things less stuffy. He was an absolute radical – he would perform without a jacket or bow tie, unheard of – and sometimes with a can of Fanta under his seat. And he would talk, at a time when classical musicians never talked to audiences.”

Deborah Chadbourn Executive Director of Music In The Round

Deborah Chadbourn Executive Director of Music In The Round

The group’s annual programme features two concert series and an annual nine-day May Festival – this year’s, with a Russian theme, started on Friday – which Deborah is heavily involved in administering.

It’s hectic work, but she has more than 30 years’ experience.

Originally from Croydon, Deborah, aged 55, moved here in 1984. She had made friends with drama students while at college in Exeter, and helped them to put on shows.

After graduating, they wanted to set up a theatre company, so Deborah and five other pals hitchhiked to Sheffield ‘fairly arbitrarily’ to begin making shows.

“There was a great music scene here then, very underground, with the Chakks and Cabaret Voltaires of this world,” Deborah smiles.

“The Leadmill was a fantastic place to go every Thursday night.”

The company they founded, Forced Entertainment, is still running 33 years later – Deborah remains a board member – and is a highly respected enterprise, recently winning the esteemed Ibsen Prize for drama.

Sheffield had its woes at the time – “It was in a recession and haemorrhaging workers from the steel industry” – but was fertile in creative terms.

“We used to rehearse next to Pulp in a derelict building off the Wicker,” remembers Deborah.

“There was space – if a building had a roof, they’d let you use it. Although some of the electrics were downright dangerous!

“The work that was made here grew out of our experience of exploring the city. We were incomers, but we very much wanted to take the city for what it was.

“There was a fantastic creative community – photographers, film-makers, musicians. There was such a buzz in that era. And actually, I think there’s a fantastic buzz now. I think the city’s got some amazing young cultural and social entrepreneurs who are doing fantastic things in the city.”

Deborah draws parallels between the conditions of 1984 and today.

“There’s empty space all over the city going to waste – let’s do something constructive in that space and animate it,” she says, citing the Union Street co-working facility and Theatre Delicatessen on The Moor as successful examples.

“Otherwise the buildings would just be falling down and creating a very negative impression.”

After 17 years with Forced Entertainment, mother-of-two Deborah took time off to bring up her youngest child, returning as project manager for the Arts Council’s Year of the Artist, where 100 creatives were based around the country, with an office based in Sheffield.

A spell working in contemporary dance at the Site Gallery followed, before the call from Music In The Round.

“It’s been a fascinating journey – I’ve learned a lot. I’ve brought my arts administration skills into the organisation, s o we’ve done some things differently in the time I’ve been there.”

The future will involve developing and growing Sheffield’s classical potential, building on the city’s Classical Weekend – short concerts by thousands of musicians across the city, in venues ranging from the City Hall to ‘hidden gems’ like the Channing Hall on Surrey Street.

“Sheffield’s music-making is a real strength. We have more choirs than you can shake a stick at, fantastic youth orchestras and players.

“We’re very good at making things and identifying niche markets for precision tools, particular kinds of music and performance, but what we don’t do – some people see this as a weakness, but I see it as a strength – is say: ‘How can we grow that so we create a huge economic impact?’.”

Deborah, who lives in Nether Edge, has a few personal ambitions too – running the half marathon and completing a charity trek among them.

“I’ve raised a few million pounds for the arts, which is pretty good going.

“Two or three people over the years have said, very kindly, ‘We wouldn’t be where we are today without people like Deborah in the back office’.”

Talks in ‘very early stages’ to explore new music centre

Discussions are under way about creating a new custom-built venue for classical music in Sheffield.

Deborah Chadborn says a 600-seat centre is envisaged, larger than Music In The Round’s home, the Crucible Studio, but smaller than the City Hall. However, talks are in the ‘very early stages’.

“We’re on a bit of a mission to explore the feasibility of a music centre that works for incoming professional performers as well as the people in the city. And I would love that to house contemporary dance, because there’s very little contemporary dance in the city now. It’s dwindled a lot.”

Strategies are being mooted by the Classical Sheffield charity, which aims to act as an umbrella body for music organisations in the city, as well as to provide advocacy and information.

Deborah offers Kings Place in London, which has space for music, art, discussions and dining, as a possible template, emphasising that any new building would need to have daytime uses.

“What we would want to see is a new model. Something where learning and teaching were absolutely integrated into the fabric of the building.”

Deborah also wants Sheffield to have its own orchestra.

“If we had a beautiful venue maybe we could invite an orchestra from London or the South East, where economically it’s really hard to survive.”