Medals should be awarded to Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt, co-directors of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. When many in the arts industry (rightly) despaired over what COVID-19 has done to their industry, these two met it head-on and created an outlet for musicians to continue their craft and pay the rent besides.
Howlett and Schonhardt secured a concert venue, Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, and a swag of sponsors and donors, and put musicians on the stage to give live-streamed concerts. “Audiences” buy “tickets” to watch the concerts on “devices”, and all proceeds of tickets sales go to the artists. Howlett says that since they started at the end of March 2020, the concerts have raised over $400,000.
Howlett very nicely and informatively introduced the concert and players – six members of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, founded by the late Richard Gill, but would benefit from developing his microphone technique to lose the “popping”. The ensemble comprised two violins, two violas, cello and double bass, led by concertmaster, Rachael Beesley.
The concert featured a thoughtful and enchanting program of five works. The first, by 16-year-old Mozart, was the Divertimento in F Major, K 138, then Richter’s Sinfonia à Quattro in B-flat major. The centrepiece was the fifth movement, Cavatina, from Beethoven’s String Quartet No 13 in E-flat major, Op. 130, written only a few months before he died. It’s on the sound recording aboard Voyager 2, in outer space. The penultimate offering was Rossini’s String Sonata No 1 in G major, with the program-closer, Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No 10 in B minor, written when he was just thirteen.
It was interesting to hear the various compositional styles of these works. Mozart’s festive fun, Richter hanging on to the last vestiges of the Baroque era, Beethoven’s rather sad melancholy, Rossini’s humour, not to mention the slightly odd quartet configuration of two violins, cello and double bass, and Mendelssohn’s early but already well-developed brilliance.
The playing across these five works was masterful; the ensemble members were very much as one, listening to and supporting each other, being acutely aware of the leader. But there was some unevenness in tempi in the first movement of the Mozart and the pace was a little slow in the first movement of the Rossini. Listening on my Bose system, the sound was somewhat subdued, lacking sparkle, with the double bass rather dominating throughout.
But the ensemble held their best till last, for their performance of the Mendelssohn was loaded with passion and verve, even with its first-year teenager finding-your-way-in-the-world self-doubt in the opening. But the self-doubt soon gave way to brilliant confidence in the writing, underscored here by inspired, expressive playing that had all the hallmarks of musical romanticism.
It certainly is worth checking out the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s concert program. Performers often have something slightly out of left field to offer and it is a chance for “audiences” to get up-close-and-personal to the artists – virtually, of course.