Music Australia News

Classical Sector Searches For Answers Under COVID-19

Graham Strahle
| May 18, 2020

How soon concert life will be able to return around Australia, and in what form it may do so, are a matter of intense speculation as social restrictions begin to ease. The hope is that concerts and opera can resume in the last quarter of the year; but all of course is highly dependent on how the COVID-19 situation plays out and when government deems it appropriate to reopen concert halls, opera theatres and other performance venues.

Until then, many organisations are facing the toughest of times and many musicians are out of work. The federal JobKeeper subsidy and other rescue government packages have enabled orchestras to keep their players on allowances. But these packages only operate for a limited lifespan, and sooner or later they are left with no option other than to dig further into cash reserves. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s plight is sadly indicative. Having sought JobKeeper money, it has nevertheless been forced to place the salaries of 75 players and 13 management staff on holding mode (see here and here for developments).

Nevertheless, the amount of goodwill and optimism shown by organisations and musicians individually has been remarkable. To fill the void that would otherwise exist, live streamed concerts, YouTube concert videos, interviews and blogs are all proving valuable in keeping musical interest alive for both audiences and musicians themselves.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra launched on 4 April what it calls ACO HomeCasts, which gives visitors it its website access to new and archival recordings, live streamed performances, curated playlists and interviews.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has begun posting Virtual Concerts in its Virtual Concert Hall in which its musicians perform in recital. These are freely available although viewers asked to make a donation.

Other orchestras have their own YouTube channels. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presents weekly performances from its archives on the MSO YouTube channel each Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra has short videos on its YouTube channel featuring various of its musicians playing solos and duos at home and outdoors.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Music From Home’ similarly features its musicians playing in a domestic setting on its YouTube channel. In one of them, trombonist Dale Vail ingeniously multitracks himself in Just the Two of Us.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s YouTube channel, Daily Dose, has interviews, performances and show-and-tell demos that are posted each morning.

Meanwhile, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s collection of feature articles, reviews, webcasts, and interviews, entitled ‘Sounds & Stories’, can be found on its own website.

In the opera sector, Opera Australia launched its own free online streaming platform on 4 May, and this gives access to some of its past productions, interviews with artists by Lyndon Terracini, and growing collection of recordings in its ‘The Best of Dame Joan Sutherland’ catalogue. In a similar vein, Pinchgut Opera has a podcast series on its website called ‘Baroque Banter’ in which Erin Helyard chats with fellow artists.

One of several festivals that have unfortunately fallen victim so far to the Coronavirus pandemic was Canberra International Music Festival, but this has been staging a CIMF 2020 Virtual Festival that posts blogs and recordings of performances of festival artists on its website.

Moving to chamber music, the Australian String Quartet is releasing recordings in its Australian Anthology project, and Selby & Friends have gone to lengths to release live performances of concerts that would otherwise have had to be cancelled in its tour calendar. It May concert, ‘Let’s Get Personal’ with music of Mozart, Beethoven and Dvořák, was one of these. Recitals Australia in Adelaide is doing likewise in its live-streamed lunch hour concerts by pianists and chamber musicians.

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall is has been strikingly successful in bringing live-streamed concerts to the public. The initiative of Chris Howlett and Musica Viva’s public affairs manager Adele Schonhardt, it launched just days after social distancing rules came into effect, on 27 March, and it presents a rolling two-week program of concerts with many of Australia’s top classical musicians. It has just added satellite concerts in Perth and Sydney, and to date has raised $100,000 in ticket revenues, almost all of which goes directly to performers (a portion goes to a piano tuner, technician and transaction costs).

MDCH works by paying a ticket of $24 via its website for any of its upcoming concerts, and this gives the purchaser access to a live stream which becomes available at the concert’s nominated start time. Unfortunately, past concerts cannot be accessed or heard again, but the point is that these are live concerts. Some of its many artists so far are pianists Ian Munro (who has been playing all the Beethoven piano sonatas) and Hoang Pham, cellist Molly Kadarauch, and singers Andrew Goodwin, Caroline Almonte and Greta Bradman. The Australian Haydn Ensemble and Ensemble Offspring have also taken part.


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