Concert hall gems amid chaos of the pandemic

Sadly, Melbourne has been remembered this year more as the world’s most locked-down city than as a vibrant centre of engaging art music. But while ducking and weaving around four lockdowns, various curfews and other restrictions that could change at the drop of a hat, Victoria’s classical musicians and arts organisations revealed incredible resilience and ingenuity at no little cost to their emotional and financial wellbeing.

Launched in 2020, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s star continued to shine this year.

The farsighted and timely establishment of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall last year has continued to bear prodigious fruit. Its national reach is being acknowledged with rebranding as the Australian Digital Concert Hall, together with well-deserved federal government funding and the accolade of Limelight magazine’s Australian Artist of the Year.

In these difficult times ADCH’s role as financial and artistic lifeline, especially for cherished local artists and small ensembles, cannot be underestimated.

ADCH heralded several changes of focus concerning artists and presentation that are now common to the classical scene. With international borders closed or severely restricted, there has been a welcome celebration of the wealth of Australian talent.

Larger ensembles and national companies, hampered by state border closures, have opted for hybrid live-digital programming that give flexibility amid uncertainty. High-end digital concerts, such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Tabula Rasa and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Bach’s Universe, are an important way of attracting potential audiences.

Against this backdrop, it can never be forgotten that lockdowns robbed artists and audiences of the bedrock of classical music performance: the acoustic alchemy of musicians and listeners experiencing live performances together in a sympathetic space. For all their good intentions and extended outreach when live performances are not possible, digital concerts can never replace this fundamental musical intimacy.

Fortunately, between lockdowns there were precious windows of opportunity where such intimacy was possible, providing some of the most memorable concert experiences of the year.

The premiere of Deborah Cheetham’s Nanyubak, played by Aaron Wyatt and the MSO.

After an 18-month absence, the Australian String Quartet returned to Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in late June with fearless programming and a dazzling display of artistic prowess in works by Bartok, Mendelssohn and Fischer. The blending of Bartok’s modernism with Mendelssohn’s romanticism and Fischer’s folkloric style was the sort of program Melbourne audiences long for: intelligent, sophisticated, but not without a little whimsy.

Six weeks previously, the Australian Chamber Orchestra had visited Melbourne for the first time in more than a year, reconfirming its artistic credentials with a sublime account of the famous Schubert Quintet, infused with the passion and pathos for which the group is renowned. This ardent outpouring of emotion, particularly in the work’s slow movement, provided much needed catharsis for the listeners.

In March, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra excelled in a spellbinding performance of Rautavaara’s Angel of Light symphony. Like a thoroughbred running a race after a long confinement, the orchestra relished its engagement with this multi-layered work, bringing forth vibrant and lustrous tone in equal measure in a performance well husbanded by conductor Benjamin Northey.

Despite the uncertainties of the pandemic, the MSO and other organisations forged ahead with their inclusive artistic agendas during the year, highlighting engagement with First Nations people and women. Notable performances included the MSO premiere of Nanyubak by Deborah Cheetham, and Wata, a collaboration between Paul Grabowsky, Indigenous artists, improvising soloists from the Australian Art Orchestra and the MSO.

Musica Viva’s presentation of Bower, a sequence of old and new music curated by Genevieve Lacey, was another thoughtful lockdown project, and Evergreen by Nat Bartsch was the hope-filled outcome of the biennial Merlyn Myer Music Commission.

Annual festivals such as the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival were another COVID-19 casualty this year. Festival favourites Stephen McIntyre, Stefan Cassomenos and Monica Curro thankfully appeared on ADCH instead.

Even with lockdowns seeming less politically palatable, how Melbourne artists and audiences live with COVID-19 will still require the same level of resilience and ingenuity that has characterised this year’s music making.

Hopefully, these qualities will pave the way not only to a firm reopening of our live music venues, and a full range of musical activity, but also to an even greater appreciation of art music through new works, bold programming and questing performances that explore and celebrate the human condition.

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