Red Shed, Hobart Brewing Company
May 20, 2017

I escape the chill of the evening when I step into the Hobart Brewing Company’s Red Shed on Saturday night. The mulled spiced cider on the menu sounds warm enough to entice me. But first I head to a Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra staff member to collect my tickets at the door for this performance and I ask, “do you mind if I bring in a drink from the bar?” He replies with a smile: “Of course you can – it’s a pub gig.”

This is the concept of Live Sessions, the TSO’s new concert series that brings musicians from the orchestra out of the concert hall and into casual spaces. The Red Shed is just a block away from the Federation Concert Hall on Hobart’s waterfront, but the vibe of this concert creates and entirely different musical world.

The venue is packed with people – younger than most attending a typical TSO gig – sipping wine and eating pizza. To the shed’s left is the looming silver brewery itself, where beer is made on site. To the right is a little wood fire, and in the space between are bar stools next to old wine barrels, which are topped with candles. Concertgoers sit and stand and chat.

Tasmanian Symphony OrchestraThe Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s Live Sessions at the Red Shed. Photos © Toby Frost

About 10 musicians from the TSO take to the stage at the end of this space; a Twin Peaks-esque red curtain hangs behind. The string players, led by concertmaster Emma McGrath, kick off with Vivaldi’s Concerto in G RV151, Alla rustica.

Baroque sounds entirely different when amplified – the producer at the mixing desk, hidden beside the brewery, seems to give preference to bass sounds which make their way through the space. The walls and tall roof are made with corrugated iron, though reverberance isn’t an issue. The Vivaldi, in a major key and filled with light energy, is a fitting way to kick off the Saturday night.

After it finishes, McGrath introduces principal clarinettist Andrew Seymour for the Finzi Bagatelles. As he takes to the stage, the musicians joke and banter and Andrew soon explains the work as being written for the instrument due to its ‘vocal-like’ sound. He smartly primes his audience to search for this timbre. He doesn’t disappoint. The amplification brings out the natural mellow tones of the clarinet, here played both with soul and vibrancy.

The second and third movements are evocative but calming. The programme is well-designed to make us feel content, massaging the evening atmosphere into a pleasurable night in this shed. There are some balance issues in this piece – some poor tuning to begin, and the violins aren’t well heard. But the lower strings sit well under Andrew; and moments of pizzicato are delightfully full when amplified. Andrew has a smooth and uniform sound that is appropriate for longer notes and passages within the Finzi: I want to keep listening to him, soaking up each note. But we soon break for an interval.

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Andrew SeymourAndrew Seymour and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra 

During interval, hip-hop plays from the speakers, and musicians head into the audience to take their well-earned share of pizza. I head off to the bar to pick up some snacks; simply to take advantage of the freedom to crunch and nibble away while I watch a classical music performance. Here, we don’t have to worry about suppressing the sounds from lolly wrappers, shuffling in our seats, or the silent tension that causes the strange phenomenon of simultaneous coughs between movements. So when the Mozart Divertimento in D K136 begins, I launch into my salty snacks and hold nothing back. My enthusiasm is emphasised by the work’s familiarity, which may be why the audience dedicates their most substantial applause yet to Mozart’s radiantly performed work.

After, McGrath asks: “The TSO is amazing, don’t you think?” and the crowd cries “Yes!” like you’d see in a rock concert. McGrath’s further talk of what the TSO does, including provide opportunities to female musicians (she describes this with ‘girl power’) evokes a similar response.

The musicians, wearing jeans and Blundstones rather than typical concert blacks, launch into a newer work – Richard Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica. When the music starts (yes, once the performance is already underway), one lady behind me rightly states: “this is lovely”.

The exquisiteness of the piece and its performance are all-consuming. This makes me feel mildly uneasy when considering the casual atmosphere intended. McGrath soars over the work with her “non-melody”, as she introduces it. I feel thankful that, despite the venue, I’m relatively sober and able to immerse myself in the solemn charm of the Meale. I wonder if, post-Mozart, it would feel longwinded (or enhanced?) to those who had consumed a few more glasses?

Tasmanian Symphony OrchestraThe Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra at the Red Shed

Alas, Andrew returns to the stage with a light little Gershwin number as an encore, lifting the mood and sending us off into the party of Saturday night.

The Live Sessions provoke the conundrum of casual music versus background music. It would feel inappropriate not to acknowledge the musicians’ performance power by giving them our full attention – but contrarily, in this environment we are encouraged to sit back and chat over wine and snacks while enjoying the pieces.

Interestingly, when given the choice, the majority of people in this Hobart crowd still prefer not to vocalise their thoughts about the music with the person standing next to them. And the only distinguishable sound between movements is the rev of an engine outside the venue. Despite a bed of distant chatter from the bar beyond this performance space, very few people break the relative silence to clap between movements. I certainly want to, but am not ready to be the first to break this archaic tradition. It’s likely we all feel the same, and we bring it upon ourselves.

Without doubt, this style of event is what the Hobart music scene needs. If the Live Sessions were held regularly, I would likely make it a weekend tradition – going to see my favourite (classical) music, performed live at the pub on a Saturday night. It’s the right time for this island to embrace collaborative and bold performance opportunities, as the TSO and Hobart Brewing Company have done. I will certainly be attending the next event.

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