With audiences turning to streaming to access music and the arts while mass gatherings are banned to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, a new initiative run by Melbourne musicians hopes to sustain local artists whose livelihoods have been impacted by the crisis. Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt have teamed up to create the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, which will open its virtual doors on March 27.

Zoe KnightonCellist Zoe Knighton will be one of the musicians performing for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

The project is designed to support musicians (and their audiences) who have been affected by cancellations and postponements. “It’s decimated the industry and if schools get closed and teaching stops, then it will be even worse,” Howlett tells Limelight. “There has been a lot of publicity about the major organisations but not as much about the independent artists who live on the $160 per call lifestyle or from recital to recital fee and even less about the sound engineers, piano tuners and stage managers that have also lost their income. When you receive anywhere between $500 and $1500 for a recital, there isn’t a lot of reserve money in saving accounts.”

Howlett himself was affected well before the COVID-19 crisis took off in Australia. “I have been grappling with this crisis since February when my company, Australian International Productions, lost over 100 concerts in China because of the closure of all theatres, but when I saw my fellow Australian colleagues’ distress on social media when Australian concert halls were closed I knew we had to do something,” he says. “I spoke to Adele Schonhardt about the idea and Melbourne Digital Concert Hall was born.”

The idea is that audiences pay for tickets to access a live streamed concert, which will be performed at a specific time like a traditional concert, with ticket sales going directly to the musicians who perform.

Howlett and Schonhardt hope to achieve two things with the project. “Firstly to enable these independent world class musicians to continue to make a living from their profession and support them through this tough time,” says Howlett. “Secondly to give audience members who aren’t allowed, or recommended not to go out, a way to connect with their community and have an element of ‘normality’ in their lives during these strange times.”

The response to the project has already been positive. “We have had an overwhelming positive response from the Melbourne artists and we hope to be able to support all of the artists that have reached out over the coming weeks,” Howlett says.

Artists performing in the series will include pianist Stefan Cassomenos, cellist Zoe Knighton and the ensemble Latitude 37, all of whom have had concerts – or whole tours in the case of Latitude 37 – cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“I hope that MDCH gives the audiences a similar joy of live music,” says Howlett. “A sense of community and also in some way a sense of normality during a time that is incredibly mentally taxing for everyone in the community.”

The opening online festival of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall will take place March 27 – 29