As the COVID situation worsens throughout Australia, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall is spreading its embrace further and further, announcing Sydney and Brisbane concert series that go beyond traditional classical repertoire.

Hamed Sadeghi, leader of the Eishan Ensemble

Hamed Sadeghi, leader of the Eishan Ensemble. Photograph © Alex Apt Photography

Tonight sees a Brisbane Gala featuring Wakka Wakka didgeridoo soloist Chris Williams and the Southern Cross Soloists give the world premiere of Sean O’Boyle’s Didgeridoo Concerto: Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, coupled with pianist Daniel de Borah performing one of Bach’s keyboard partitas, and a selection of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux.

On Friday 23 July, live from the empty The Concourse in Sydney’s Chatswood, pianist Grace Kim will perform beloved works by Mozart, Ravel and Chopin at 7pm, before sensational Persian fusion group, the Eishan Ensemble, makes its MDCH debut at 8:30pm.

For MDCH Co-Director Chris Howlett, this shift into non-classical music is a logical extension of their mission to support the music industry throughout Australia.

“No matter where we are in Australia, all artists are being affected”, Howlett says. “The MDCH mantra has always been to support artists in general, as well as the technicians and all the people that make the industry what it is. So it’s been something I have really wanted to expand into, and it’s the perfect time to start making sure we can support as many artists as possible, no matter what their genre.”

“There is such a wealth here in Australia of world music, particularly Persian music, and European music. I just can’t wait for the juxtaposition of the Eishan Ensemble with Grace Kim this Friday, who is playing a much more classical piano recital. I think that juxtaposition really reflects the music fabric that we have in Australia.”

The genre rollercoaster continues in the coming weeks: July alone features saxophone-guitar duo Nick Russoniello and Murilo Tanouye, violinists Anna Da Silva Chen and Kristian Winther, and guitarist Karin Schaupp. Then there is Catherine & Friends, an extravaganza hosted by cabaret legend Catherine Alcorn, who has assembled an extraordinary group of performers including the star of Hamilton, Jason Arrow, Jacqui Dark, iOTA and Miss Verushka Darling.

Catherine Alcorn

Despite the current chaos, as an artistic director Howlett is relishing the opportunity to play around with his programs, especially now that MDCH is established in multiple cities and can take its audience bouncing around the country on any given night.

“I’m going through whiteboard markers at a rate of knots,” he says with a laugh. “But putting unexpected programs together is one of the joys of artistic directorship – there are the obvious ones that work well, and we all program Mozart with Ravel, or early Beethoven with Schubert, but once you start being able to transcend different styles…”

“But also, from an MDCH perspective, we’re not just based in one venue. We can put cameras in different places and jump from one another. It’s an amazing position to be in as an artistic director – I can pick up something from Melbourne here, then Sydney, then Brisbane, then regional Australia. I can create the shape that I want.”

Chris Howlett, Dvořák Marathon, Dvořák, 3MBS

Chris Howlett, Artistic Director of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. Image supplied

It’s fair to say that, nearly 18 months into this pandemic, there are many that would have hoped that the need for MDCH would have passed by now. But instead of just being a lifeboat in a crisis, MDCH has grown and expanded to become an important part of the industry.

“We never expected MDCH to go as well as it has”, agrees Howlett. “We started it as a reaction, to be able to support artists, and we continue to do that. But what we learned over time is that of equal importance is the community that usually attend classical music, or love classical music. We now have about 32 percent of people watching from regional Australia. And regional Australia might only be an hour out of the capital cities, but for some people that is too far to travel when you’re heading home at 10:30 at night in the dark.”

“So for us, MDCH has a really strong future not only to support artists, but to connect that music-loving community with the artists that they want to see.”

“Melbourne Chamber Orchestra is a perfect example: they try and do a lot of touring, and they are passionate about going to as many small places as possible, but they can’t realistically go to those small places, and keep those connections, as much as we would like, just because of schedules and finances. But they have had a really successful program down here: they perform every second week – when we’re not in lockdown – but they have been able to, through funding, provide tickets to people from those regional places. So they can stay engaged, stay connected, and listen to high-end chamber music. So it’s win-win.”

And, perhaps most importantly, MDCH has provided a financial lifeline for many different parts of the industry – not just the performers, but the entire ecosystem of live music.

“We are just shy of $1.5 million dollars”, Howlett reveals, a slight sense of awe in his voice. “It has been amazing to be able to do that. That is the money that has gone to artists – we have worked with about 1,000 artists – and on top of that is the money that we have invested into the people that aren’t on the front cover of the brochures: the piano tuners, the technicians, the stage managers, that we know the industry stops without. Plus we have been able to pay for small amounts of marketing through community radio that has also been struggling throughout this.”

“It’s that sort of holistic view of the effect of COVID that isn’t always at the forefront. Yes, the concerts stop, and everyone always thinks of the musicians, and rightfully so – but there is such a flow on effect to the community that normally attends concerts, to marketing, to the stage managers. The whole ecosystem has really taken a huge whack over the last 15, 16 months.”

And what about when the pandemic ends, and we can safely return to the concert hall? Will MDCH continue even when it’s raison d’etre has passed?

“Absolutely”, Howlett says. “And for me, in some ways, that’s the ideal world for MDCH – to be able to have a live studio audience and also broadcast to those who can’t be there. To be able to support small-to-medium ensembles and their subscription concerts, where they have live people, and we are also enabling through the digital broadcast to keep the community from regional Australia, and even international – we now have 11 percent of our audience watching from overseas – and we can keep them connected to Australian artistry.”

Tickets for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall livestreams in Sydney and Brisbane are available now, with automated 72-hour access to all concerts.