MSO in these virtual times

Written by: Rohan de Korte Cellist, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Covid 19 and it was March the 16th. The MSO was playing Scheherazade to an empty Hamer Hall while the box office team was busy refunding tickets. The hall was eerily quiet after the final notes – where was the eager first clap to start the applause? Someone had to know the music was finished. A cameraman waved an arm and told us it was time to leave the stage. It’s been two months since then and the halls have been closed, the orchestra stood down and every musician in Melbourne has tried to work out how to fill in a Jobkeeper form.

And then Silence.

After so many years on stage I thought it would be nice to be quiet but an empty feeling started to grow. The news reports on TV showed people suffering in Italy, Spain and then England and America. If ever there was a time to pick up an instrument and play it seemed to be now. Music has always been about people and people were turning to the internet to share. Solo Bach suites if you like the cello were being offered by every cellist and his dog to sooth the soul. Others, the tech savvy ones, put together mashups of their favourite songs, played in layers to a click track, by themselves. The ACO started producing weekly solos from its members, little classical style videos shot in the style of MTV. I was lucky enough to play in a 55 cello arrangement of the chorus to Tannhauser to help raise funds for Support Act – well done to Craig Allister Young of the QSO for putting that together. But while this was all fulfilling the musical need to share it wasn’t helping to pay the bills.

Enter the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, a ridiculously quick startup by Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt from 3MBS FM. Using the empty Atheneum Theatre on Collins Street in the centre of a ghostly quiet Melbourne CBD, they’ve been streaming socially distant live concerts on an almost nightly basis throughout the lockdown. 75 recitals in 10 weeks, using more than 200 otherwise unemployed musicians and raising over $340,000. It has been a godsend for performers who can earn some money through the ticket sales and at $24 a ticket it’s been great for audiences as well. In many ways it’s had the added benefit of being a fabulous way to reach all of the elderly people who would normally like to come to concerts but aren’t able to do so. And, people can listen in from anywhere. I was able to tell friends in Western Australia and relatives in New Zealand, even family in Germany and Canada so that they could tune in.

Playing a concert to an empty hall for an audience who isn’t there is strangely liberating. Take away the need to project yourself to the back row and the whole affair becomes much more intimate, a bit of an exploration of the immediate space around you, lit like a match in the centre of a darkened stage.

These photos was sent to me, during my recital, from Armidale in NSW. Lucky the phone was on silent.

See Melbourne digital concert halls: