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Viewpoint: Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Opening Gala 2021

by Heather Leviston

When the invitation came to join Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt for the Opening Gala of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s 2021 season, I was surprised at my instant emotional response – a mixture of joyful anticipation and, strangely, tearful relief. They were also tears of gratitude for the invitation and for what these two directors of MDCH had accomplished for almost a year now. With partners at the Athenaeum Theatre, 5 Stream and Kawai, they and an array of philanthropists and supporters enabled artists to raise well over a million dollars to bring us music that is such an important part of our lives.

Looking at the program, however, I was disappointed that no Australian music, or even relatively contemporary music, had been included. Schubert, Mozart and Mendelssohn seemed alarmingly mainstream. By the end of the concert, I was persuaded that these choices could be justified, especially when Chris Howlett announced that the premieres of 23 new Australian works would be include in the 300 concerts programmed for 2021.

The season was launched with Schubert’s Overture in C minor – an unexpected choice since the composer was a mere 14-year-old when he wrote it, and it begins with a rather melancholy Largo. A two-movement quintet scored for violin, two violas, cello and double bass it is rarely heard and served as an introduction to one of the most exciting features of MDCH’s 2021 season: the complete set of Schubert’s quartets, played by local and interstate quartets. Part of a star-studded cast of Melbourne’s leading string players, violinists Yi Wang and Wilma Smith joined Wenhong Luo, viola, Zoe Knighton, cello, and Emma Sullivan, double bass, for Schubert’s rarely-heard work, infusing the melodious Allegro, characteristic of later works, with buoyant energy.

Amir Farid joined the quintet for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.12 in A major – a much more familiar work by a composer almost twice Schubert’s age at the time of composition. After interval, Chris Howlett told us how somebody had pointed out that we were celebrating Mozart’s birthday almost to the day; he was born January 27, 1756. And it was an excellent way to celebrate it. With the piano placed at the back of the slender string forces, the concerto became more chamber music in nature with heightened clarity and sense of ensemble even though the many piano cadenzas put the spotlight firmly on the piano. In addition to technical virtuosity, Farid’s sensitive rendering of the elegiac Andante and delightful playfulness in the final Allegretto were completely captivating. He conveyed an unwavering impulse of musical intention and rapport with his colleagues.

Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major would have to be the most exhilarating party piece for string ensembles ever written. It is the work of the third musical prodigy for the evening – a 16-year-old genius. Virtuoso violinist Tair Khisambeev led Wilma Smith (the only artist to perform in all three works), Curt Thompson, Sophie Rowell (violins), Chris Moore, Merewyn Bramble (violas) and Chris Howlett and Molly Kadarauch (cellos) in a true celebration of music making – live music with a live audience. That this work should be included in the program was the special request of Adele Schonhardt and therefore dedicated to her. She surely could not have been more pleased by such a thrilling performance. I don’t know whether audience members who had purchased a digital ticket could hear the players’ whoops of pleasure as they gathered off stage, but they certainly would not have missed the enthusiastic applause and cheering from the smallish, COVID-safe audience. Our excitement had even more fizz than the complimentary sparkling wine so generously handed to us by Adele and Chris before the concert.

To be a member of a live audience reminded us of what we had been missing. We were no longer necessarily at the mercy of inferior personal sound systems; we could focus on what we found most interesting such as the shifting pairings of instruments and the sharing of joy – Sophie Rowell and Chris Moore seemed to be having an absolute ball, especially in that last helter skelter Presto movement; and, most importantly, we knew that our musicians could feel our presence and our appreciation of their gifts – a love of music acting as a bond that unites performers and their audiences.

As I try to bring myself to discard dozens of tickets purchased for concerts planned for 2020, I am incredibly grateful for what MDCH, 5 Stream (now acknowledged internationally for excellence in broadcasting), the Athenaeum Theatre, Kawai and many partners and benefactors have enabled. This Gala marks the beginning of further possibilities as we enjoy both in-house and virtual performances during 2021. The fact that we can continue to experience concerts held in other cities, states and countries at affordable prices, thanks to MDCH and partners, has been one of the best things to come out of a very dark period, and may well be a catalyst for making classical music accessible to new audiences.

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Heather Leviston attended the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Gala performed at the Athenaeum Theatre on January 28, 2021.

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