With the summer season almost upon us, that true Australian lifestyle speciality is coming around again: outdoor arts events. Whether a festival, opera or symphony concert, such events can raise the senses uniquely and heighten enjoyment when held in the fresh air. Arguably, as Fiona Richards writes in her book The Soundscapes of Australia: Music, Place and Spirituality the outdoors is where Australian culture ‘happens’: it is where a nation celebrates life and forges its identity.
Our orchestras embrace the outdoors in varying ways and to varying extents. Some alfresco concerts, notably the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Under the Stars during the Sydney Festival, have become major community fixtures that gather crowds in their thousands. For example, some 14,000 flocked to Parramatta Park when it was held there in 2018. Indeed so popular has that event become that Time Out felt obliged (tongue in cheek no doubt) to point out that “the [Sydney] festival director would have a lynch mob outside his door” if ever it was cancelled.
Instead of taking place in a major civic square or park and programming the usual popular classics, some orchestras are experimenting with the formula, which is good to see. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s choice of the Margaret Court Arena to play Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in October 2020 is a case in point. Around 1000 performers (suitably, given the works nickname) are expected to participate in that celebrated sports venue, making for what the MSO claims will be its biggest performance of all time. Another instance is the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s sunset concert this November in the Warriparinga Wetlands, which is happens to be a relatively undisturbed place of Aboriginal and environmental significance nestling in Adelaide’s southern suburbs. Indigenous dancers will take part in this, and dovetailed into the performance will be wetland tours along with assorted family-oriented activities.
Initiatives such as these expand the envelope of what is possible. But the more usual open-air orchestral concerts continue to have their place too. They allow people of all walks of life to come together and enjoy a relaxed evening of classical music: all one needs to do is bring along a picnic hamper and perhaps bottle of wine. These are all good reasons to stage them: for orchestras it means expanding audiences and building public profile.
The only problem of course is weather – just because these concerts are scheduled in summer does not mean it’s not going to rain. The usual policy orchestras take is to warn patrons of the possibility of rain but to commit to going ahead regardless, rain or shine. Nature can take its toll though, and maybe this is the reason why outdoor concerts are not more frequently held than they are. To take but one example of how things can go awry, the ASO’s long-running Al Fresco outdoor concert series, which saw that orchestra perform in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and various out-of-town locations each summer, ceased after 2012 – rain besieged that event several times.
Sound quality can be a problem too. Wholly reliant on speaker systems, the sound of an orchestra outdoors can be thin and unsatisfying – both for the audience and the players. But with the right expertise it can be made to sound quite acceptable.
Here is a round-up of what is happening around the country this summer and beyond. The list does not seek to be comprehensive (it does not include youth or community orchestras for instance). Nevertheless, one can see that some orchestras embrace the idea more than others, and that as a sector perhaps a lot more could be done with it if they were sufficiently emboldened.
Sydney Symphony Under the Stars, hosted by Sydney Festival. Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey, performing film music and classical favourites. Parramatta Park, 19 January 2020. Free event.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, 2020 Sidney Myer Free Concerts, conductors Tianyi Lu and Benjamin Northey, various soloists. Sidney Myer Music Bowl, 5, 8 and 14 February 2020. Free event.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Mahler 8 (‘Symphony of a Thousand’), conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, featuring numerous soloists and combined choirs. Margaret Court Arena, 24 October 2020.
West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Eskimo Joe with WASO. Alt rock band Eskimo Joe and folk pop artist Bob Evans (aka Kevin Mitchell). Pioneer Women’s Memorial, Kings Park & Botanic Garden, 1 December 2019.
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Sunset Symphony: Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at Warriparinga. Conductor Luke Dollman, with Zimbabwean former cricketer Henry Olonga and Indigenous dancers. Warriparinga Wetlands, Marion, 9 November 2019.
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Symphony under the Stars. City Park, Launceston, 22 February 2020. Watch for details here. Free event. Note that this event will not be held in Hobart this summer.
Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Shell Prom. Conductor Geoffrey Castles, soloists Genevieve Kingsford and Simon Gleeson in a music theatre program. Lawns of Government House, 30 November 2019.