We watched in dismay as, domino-like, one arts organisation after another announced the suspension of activities. It was an unprecedented collapse, and the continuation of a surreal experience – those two adjectives somehow defining coronavirus times. For many it has been devastating, and not only health-wise and financially. For performing artists, public performance is their lifeblood and although serenading the neighbours with operatic arias from the balcony of your apartment might show a heartening display of community spirit, it is no substitute for professional work. And it does not pay the bills.
Enter Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt. Under their wise and energetic entrepreneurship, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall was quick to create a vital platform designed to support musicians and the Melbourne arts industry. Prospective patrons have been invited to purchase tickets for a diverse range of concerts performed in the Athenaeum Theatre.
I must confess that, coming a little late to these concerts, I was disappointed to find that each concert would be played only once at a set time as per traditional recitals; there was no way of subscribing to concerts that had already been held.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra had done their level best to keep subscribers and other lovers of classical music happy by presenting live performances but found the logistics of keeping those involved at a safe social distance impractical, despite spacious seating for orchestral members. We do have the opportunity to watch previous performances, but now that I have experienced several MDCH performances, I must admit that experiencing live performances, even in digital form, comes with distinct special qualities.
One of the least expected bonuses was the excitement of the countdown clock as I waited for Wilma Smith and Yasmin Rowe to present their contributions to Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations. There was an alarming pause before Chris Howlett’s welcome when I thought my Internet connection had failed, but all was well and in came violinist and pianist, who then bowed to… silence. Surreal – at least initially. Although the audio quality of my laptop was completely unworthy of the efforts made by the technical experts producing the telecast, Wilma Smith’s trademark rich tone and authoritative musicality shone through. This, coupled with the pair’s sympathetic reading of Beethoven’s Sonatas for piano with violin Nos, 3 and 6, resulted in a most rewarding experience. After the non-applause (except for my socially very distant response), Wilma Smith’s few words brought home the fact that her family and friends in New Zealand and all over the world were given the opportunity to share the event. I had been fortunate enough to hear her play as part of the Flinders Quartet in a truly outstanding concert at the Collins St Baptist Church a few weeks ago, but others had missed out on their concert in the limited space of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Primrose Potter Salon, which had been sold out well in advance. Now, countless numbers could hear her.
It was disappointing that rising star violinist Kyla Matsuura-Miller was unable to play Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8, due to illness, but with pianist Leigh Harrold and violinist Phoebe Gardner playing his 7th so eloquently, nobody was going to feel in the least bit short changed. Hopefully, we will have a chance to hear Kyla and Leigh Harrold play the 8th some time soon.
The icing on the violin piano duo cake came the following evening with Monica Curro and Stefan Cassomenos playing Beethoven’s No. 4 and No. 10 violin sonatas. By this time I had graduated to a bigger desktop computer with better sound quality, but I didn’t need this to know that these two musicians were creating musical magic, especially in the No. 10.
I hope others have had better luck connecting with high fidelity sound systems in their television sets. Even if you haven’t, these concerts are well worth scheduling into your day. Not only does a mere $24 help support professional musicians and the arts community, they are the next best thing we have to a live performance.
As of today, over $80,000 have been raised – a sum that indicates just how much this initiative is appreciated. There are also plans for renowned food writer Rita Erlich to join the cream of Melbourne’s musicians and composers in some innovative programming.
You can find further details on the MDCH website and Facebook page. Further recitals in the series of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas by the superb Ian Munro and concerts by Ben Martin, Josephine Vains and members of Melbourne Opera are among those scheduled for MDCH’s “Isolation Series”. So, grab a glass or cup of your favourite beverage, and settle down on the couch to enjoy some wonderful music-making without the coughing obbligato that is all too often a feature of our concert halls.
Photo: Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt standing proudly for Australian artists on #AusmusicTShirtDay at the Athenaeum Theatre.