Many momentous events occurred last year. But for Chris Howlett – cellist and founder of Australian International Productions, the nation’s largest exporter of classical music to China – two stand out. The first was a text message he received on February 24 from a Chinese business partner.
“He said $2.5 million worth of contracts had been cancelled instantly, which meant 90 per cent of my family’s income disappeared in one text message,” Howlett tells Broadsheet.
The second was a 4am lightbulb moment not long after, while he was bottle-feeding his son and scrolling through social media. He noticed an outpouring of anguished messages from local artists who had similarly lost their livelihoods overnight as theatres nationwide were forced to close.
“So I called Adele and said I really wanted to do something, and she said, ‘Absolutely’. We knew each other really well and knew we worked together really well.”
That’s Adele Schonhardt, then-media and public affairs manager at Musica Viva Australia and vice-chair (now chair) of the board at 3MBS Fine Music radio station alongside Howlett, who was then chair.
Together they devised the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (MDCH), a social enterprise that hosts live-streamed concerts with performances by some of Australia’s most accomplished musicians, filmed using quality technology for audiences watching at home.
The aim is simple: it provides a paid means for soloists and small ensembles to continue to perform, and gives live-music-starved audiences an evening of quality entertainment.
“We wanted to make sure everything we did was high quality so the artists have their best chance to shine, and we wanted to make it a paid platform,” says Howlett. “As a cellist can you imagine if I played at the Melbourne Recital Centre and there was a tip jar as you left? [Here you’re being] paid through ticket sales rather than a handout.”
Various partners came on board, including Melbourne digital startup 5stream, Kawai pianos and the Athenaeum Theatre, and the concerts began, with evenings of classical music performed by all-Australian line-ups, streamed live. Ticket prices were capped at $24, with $20 going to the artists and $4 covering the handling fee and backstage technicians’ payment.
Howlett has been flabbergasted by the series’ success.
“When Adele and I had that first conversation on March 17, then with Kawai, I don’t think any of them expected us to be going for more than two weeks. That first concert on March 27, the artists made $18,000; 14 months later and $1.5 million has been reinvested among a diverse group of 1000 artists and 520 different technicians, with more than 700,000 tickets sold.”
The Australia Council, Create NSW and various philanthropists came on board, meaning Schonhardt and Howlett could dedicate themselves full-time to MDCH.
Recently they invited Melbourne audiences to be part of a small live studio audience – but as Melbourne cautiously embraces its freedom and an impending return to full-capacity theatres, the opposite is happening in Sydney.
Once again, artists here are watching their livelihoods almost magically disappear. Once again, Howlett has been driven to action and within four days organised Standing With Sydney, a series of concerts filmed in Sydney to support local musicians and entertainers. The first two concerts generated $17,200 for the arts community, and there are more to follow.
“You have to be able to move fast, because the artists need the money this week, not six weeks away,” says Howlett.
Notably, this series marks a shift away from classical, world music and jazz into cabaret and entertainment. This week’s line-up includes Ensemble Offspring (performing works for flower pots and waterphone, among other things) and Fika (an ensemble featuring baroque instruments with electric overtones). On Friday, comedy-cabaret show Catherine & Friends debuts, featuring Hamilton Australia’s leading man Jason Arrow; Helpmann Award-winning performer iOTA (Smoke and Mirrors, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mad Max: Fury Road); Helpmann Award-winning mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark (whose dreams of performing with the Australian Ballet in Adelaide this week for its premiere of Anna Karenina were smashed by Covid); and multi-award-winning artist, cabaret performer and producer Catherine Alcorn.
“Here we are again, a year later but without ... any immediate support, so it seems we need to take matters into our own fabulous hands: MDCH’s first comedy-cabaret livestream concert,” says Alcorn. “I can promise an evening of unbridled energy, comedy, music and song.”
Each show is performed and filmed live at Chatswood’s Concourse Theatre in a Covid-safe manner, with more shows to be announced.
Howlett says he and Schonhardt are gratified by the deluge of thanks and appreciation they’ve received since they began, from artists and audiences alike. “I honestly didn’t know at the beginning whether this was going to even sell 10 tickets; never would I have dreamt it would have gone to 700,000. We’ve just been blown away.”
Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s Standing With Sydney concert series streams nightly at 8.30pm. Visit the website for tickets and artist details.