Masterworks to warm a Melbourne winter

Published in The Age 26 August 2009

Robyn Archer, while Melbourne International Arts Festival Artistic Director, said that one of the major problems facing Victorian festival directors was the scope of events already scheduled throughout the year.

Indeed, she said, audiences could organise their own multi-art form festival almost any week of the year. Next week, for instance, we will enjoy the Melbourne Writers Festival, but the MWF is just the high profile tip of readings, conferences, lectures, author visits, local book festivals and workshops organised by Victorian bookshops, libraries, universities, communities and the new Centre for Books Writing and Ideas to create what is arguably the world’s largest continuous literary festival.

Major festivals such as the International Arts, Film and Comedy Festivals are complemented by mini-festivals such as the Port Fairy Festival or the annual Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Metropolis series.

The musical choice is amazing. The MSO provides the backbone of the musical year staging orchestral, choral, chamber and contemporary concerts. The major national companies, such as Music Viva, create year long subscription festivals.

The new Melbourne Recital Centre, whatever the teething problems, is a music space which offers musicians and audiences sound quality equal to the best in the world.

At churches, suburban halls and other venues, students, semi professional orchestras and choirs make music. Most weeks a music lover can hear a chamber music concert by outstanding young groups such as the Flinders, Hamer and Tin Alley Quartets and Benaud, Freshwater and Yarra Trios as well as  lunchtime and evening concerts at ANAM.

With so many festivals, mini-festivals and DIY festivals do we need more?

There are precedents which suggest that there are always opportunities to create new events which encourage tourism, stimulate fresh ideas about art forms and generate economic activity.

Gerard Vaughan’s NGV Winter Masterpieces has been a huge success creating new audiences, letting us see wonderful works inaccessible to many, and giving Melbournians and tourists a reason to get away from the heater or visit.

In 2000 Jonathan Mills, faced with a very limited MIAF budget, curated a remarkable Bach 2000 festival to mark the 350th anniversary of Bach’s death. Forty-two cantatas and other major works were performed by the MSO, Cantus Colln, Windsbacher Knabenchor, Collegium Vocale Gent and the Bach Collegium. In his history of the first 20 years of the Melbourne International Arts Festival Paul Clarkson said: “Mill’s decision was described variously as an ‘idiosyncratic, if not radical move’, ‘brave, audacious’ and a ‘barkingly mad risk’.

While controversial at the time, Mills’ festival is now seen as a brilliantly creative solution to a limited budget and competition from the Sydney Olympics.

His success suggests that we could do something similar again – in the form of an annual July Melbourne Winter Masterworks.

In July we already have significant musical events such as Chamber Music Australia Asia-Pacific and International competitions; the Mietta Song Recital Awards for art song; the Victorian Opera Winter season; and other musical events.

Injecting additional elements – international groups and orchestras;  new opportunities for Australian groups;  intensive programs at the MRC and  other venues – we could make Melbourne Winter Masterworks a tourist and local attraction as effective as the NGV’s Winter Masterpieces, while simultaneously encouraging young performers, showcasing great international performers and even, perhaps, attracting new audiences.

Despite some scepticism about how hard it is to create new audiences for serious work it can be done. Robyn Archer’s Melbourne Festivals attracted thousands of people who had never attended the Festival before; 40% of the audience at the recent CMA Asia-Pacific Competition were new; and MSO Metropolis audiences are much younger than the stereotypical self-funded retiree classical music ticket buyer.

Each annual Melbourne Winter Masterworks could easily be themed. There are abundant anniversaries to commemorate (2009, for example, saw anniversaries for Purcell, Mendelssohn, Handel and Haydn); next year’s NGV Masterpieces exhibition could be complemented by a month of appropriate works; an extensive month long performance schedule of past and modern Australian compositions; and, as I once suggested to my friend Kristy Edmunds, we could comfortably have a month-long Beethoven festival any year.

Melbourne Winter Masterworks would build on the foundations of great concert infrastructure (the MRC and a re-furbished Hamer Hall) and great musicians Melbourne already has. We even have the perfect person available to organise it – MSO’s retiring Managing Director Trevor Green might be looking for a part-time position – and the Major Events Company, after missing out on the Paris Opera Ballet, might even be persuaded to become as passionate about music as they are about petrol heads.