Musica Viva Australia has announced the launch of a National Chamber Music Championship in 2020, the organisation’s 75th birthday year. The Championship, launched with support from Creative Victoria and in partnership with Melbourne Recital Centre and the Australian National Academy of Music, will be open to secondary school students from all over Australia. Groups of three to eight will compete for thousands of dollars in prize money in a contest that culminates in a finals weekend at Melbourne Recital Centre next September.

Wilma SmithWilma Smith. Photo supplied

Violinist and former Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Wilma Smith will continue as Musica Viva’s Artistic Director of Competitions, following the success of the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition in 2018, and will be Artistic Director of the new Championship. The Championship will run annually in the years between MICMC (which takes place every four years) with prizes of $5,000, $4,000 and $2,500 for first, second and third places respectively, as well as the ANAM Prize for a deserving string quartet entrant, which includes a week’s tutoring at ANAM, including travel costs. A national teachers’ conference, in partnership with aMuse, will run alongside the finals weekend.

“The fun and serious work of putting together a performance of a piece of music with a group of friends is engrossing and rewarding for anybody, with rewards spilling over into life in general,” Smith told Limelight. “The National Chamber Music Championship for secondary school students presents young musicians with a structure and motivation to socialise musically and work towards a common goal. These are formative years for all adolescents, including budding musicians, and such galvanising musical experiences will create pathways to life-long appreciation and participation for future professionals and amateurs alike.”

The first round will require ensembles to make a video submission, filmed in front of an audience of at least 15 people, with semi-finalists chosen to compete in the final rounds at Melbourne Recital Centre. “I hope we will attract groups of many kinds, hopefully some of the standard formations such as string quartets, piano trios, quartets and quintets, wind quintets, brass quintets, but also more eclectic combinations and some unusual instruments,” Smith said. “We have designed this competition to be as accessible as possible, including through travel subsidies for those who need help to get to Melbourne. Chamber music doesn’t have to be just for the elite, although I hope we attract plenty of those with professional aspirations too.”

“I hope students of all technical levels will feel the satisfaction of achievement after spending precious time and effort getting to grips with their chosen piece of music, practising their parts at home by themselves and rehearsing together, improving week by week until they finally perform for their first round Championship video entry,” Smith told Limelight. “I’m sure they will learn a lot about making music and working closely with others – and I hope they are bitten by the chamber music bug as I was at their age.”

The competition – including the choice of name – is a nod to the way sport is structured in Australia. “From a very wide base of the pyramid where many thousands of kids are playing any particular sport, we eventually arrive at the pointy end where the elite athletes dwell,” Smith explains. “On the way up are decreasing numbers of participants at increasing skill levels but at all levels there can be found the joy of participation. Chamber music can be like that. To some extent it already is but our championship hopes to increase the base of the pyramid by encouraging young musicians of every technical level to have a go. The top prizes at the finals weekend will no doubt go to ‘elite’ groups but there are quite a few prizes that target groups who do not make it to the semi-finals and finals weekend in Melbourne but who may have shown particular qualities or something special in the first round. The main prize for all participants, though, is the thrill and personal satisfaction of playing music with friends and collectively striving for the best possible performance, you could say a personal best.”

So does Smith think classical music – and in particular chamber music – will ever have the importance that sport does in the national psyche? “Well, we can dream! Who knows, as robots take over more and more of our previously human tasks, it may well be that musicians are seen as increasingly cool because the act of creating a performance in the moment, particularly a chamber music performance, is such a triumph of humanity with all its glorious variability and unpredictability,” she says. “If we can get the youth of today and tomorrow to experience the thrill of creating music together, it just might spread.”

Entries for the 2020 National Chamber Music Championship open on January 29, 2020, and close on May 21, 2020. The finals weekend will be held at Melbourne Recital Centre September 4 – 6

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