The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s live stream of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on Monday was a roaring success, with 5,500 watchers tuning in live from around the world. Less than a week later, the video has already been watched more than 64,000 times, while the MSO’s live stream of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, conducted by Benjamin Northey last night, has already had more than 21,000.

Benjamin NortheyBenjamin Northey and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Laura Manariti

While the musicians found it a strange experience playing to an empty hall on Monday night, they were impressed by the numbers, the MSO’s Managing Director Sophie Galaise tells Limelight. “5,500, it’s two Hamer Halls – it’s like the size of Hamer Hall sold out twice,” she says. “They were so excited when I gave them the numbers at the end of the concert.”

With the ban on mass gatherings only flagged on the Friday, the MSO had to scramble to set up the stream. “We had been working for months on a plan to go digital and make a shift in our business model, and this was going to be rolled out in a couple of months from now,” Galaise says. “This crisis has really been the perfect moment to transform a challenge into an opportunity. We really rushed over the weekend to set things up, and we thank the Arts Centre who let us stay on their stage on Monday night – they were closing on Monday.”

The second performance therefore had to be in the MSO’s more intimate Iwaki Auditorium, with the musicians – conducted by Benjamin Northey – spaced out to comply with social distancing advice. “I don’t like the expression, it’s much more physical distancing,” says Galaise. “We’ve also reviewed completely our programs so that we would have smaller pieces that necessitate a smaller number of musicians, so that it will be more chamber sized programs – just to make sure that we fit in the studio, we respect all regulations and all the advice that is for the benefit of everyone.”

The ban on mass gatherings is devastating the performing arts industry, with live concerts cancelled for months and no firm end in sight. “We are all in a very, very difficult situation,” Galaise says. “We are trying to stay well, and in good health, and alive for as long as possible – and not to forget our casuals and contractuals, who are a big part of our workforce here at the MSO.”

“So finding a new way to engage with our audience, and at the same time hopefully generate donations, was very important,” she says.

While the MSO’s live streamed concerts are free, they are an opportunity for the organisation to respectfully ask audiences to consider making a donation during what is a challenging time. “We’ve seen donations reported are 14 times bigger than the usual, so that’s very, very encouraging,” Galaise says. “It’s small donations, but it really counts. Every dollar counts at this point.”

The situation is far from over, and the prospect of up to six months of closures for companies that depend on ticket sales is daunting, to say the least. “If you look at maybe a month of closure, that’s disruptive, but you can pick it up in a month’s time and go on,” Galaise says. “If it’s going to be two months, six months, then it is really impacting your business model, the continuity of your activities. MSO is the oldest orchestra in this country, more than a hundred years old – it would be sad to go down. But we’ve decided that if it is going to be – and I hope it will not, we’re working very hard to not get there – that we should go gracefully down, being true to our values. We’re working very, very hard to try to turn around the business and be innovative.”

Other orchestras and organisations in Australia and around the world are quickly turning to social media and streaming to engage with their audiences and find a way to survive the crisis, but the MSO have been quickest to catch the moment. “I hope that we will actually craft a way forward,” Galaise says. “I hope it will be successful, because I would be delighted to share it with my colleagues from around the country and actually try to help small and medium organisations who would probably not have the means to do that. So we’re working on our business plan, but right now we’re focusing on making sure we have beautiful programs that will be presented in coming weeks.”

With concert halls and theatres closed, arts companies around Australia and the world are finding innovative ways to reach their audiences, whether it’s streaming live concerts and events, creating new videos and recordings or digging into the archives. At Limelight we’ve brought these together to create a one-stop shop for your arts needs.

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