Discovering free classical music concerts in Melbourne.

Combine a love of classical music, a limited budget and a few hours of research, and ‘voila!’ a wealth of opportunities present themselves for experiencing a variety of great music being performed at free concerts in Melbourne. Spoilt for choice with the range of events available, the next task is to choose which to attend according to whatever criteria suit you.

Both the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (Melbourne University) and the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music (Monash University) offer free daytime and evening chamber music concerts. During each semester enjoy a musical lunch break on Mondays at Melbourne’s Melba Hall and on Thursdays in the Music Auditorium at Monash. Both universities also schedule free music events at other campuses and locations. Full programs are available online and in print form from Melbourne and Monash. Recently I enjoyed a feast of music during some concerts in a lunch hour series, including works by Schubert (Sutherland Trio) Ravel, Mozart and Tournier (Wilma and Friends) and Spohr, Schumann and Sutherland (Songmakers Australia).

Free evening concerts over summer are performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, while during the year the University of Melbourne Orchestra performs in free events at Hamer Hall and the Melbourne Recital Centre. Free organ recitals are held at the Universities, the Melbourne Town Hall and St Michael’s Uniting Church in Collins Street.

The Governor of Victoria hosts free recitals at Government House and ABC Classic FM presents free ‘Sunday Live’ concerts in Melbourne at 1pm during May and December at the Iwaki Auditorium.  One can only hope that cuts to ABC funding won’t affect  ‘Sunday Live’, and trust that if there was any suggestion of this the Friends of the ABC would protest as effectively as they did over concerns about the possible axing of Peppa Pig. 

It’s worth noting that a number of leading chamber music groups, such as Musica Viva, offer free tickets as part of their promotional work. Subscribers to seasons’ tickets will be happy to bring these to your attention. Free events at the Melbourne Recital Centre and the occasional competition for concert tickets are advertised on their website and in the MRC e-Newsletters.

St Paul’s Cathedral is a popular venue for free concerts, as well as a series of lunch time concerts for a donation at the door. And that brings me inevitably to mention that there are also a number of budget-priced classical music concerts available. Enough for another article, but, in brief, it’s well worth checking out programs and ticket prices for the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne, The Australian Chamber Choir at Middle Park, and the Local Heroes Series in the Salon at the MRC. Community choirs and orchestras and small opera companies also offer very reasonably priced tickets. Worth remembering too is that major performances in opera, ballet and in chamber and orchestral concerts sometimes offer ‘student rush’ tickets on the night at bargain prices.

Concerts involve a three-way-relationship between composer, performers and audience. Recently I posed some questions to composer, Stuart Greenbaum, and soprano, Merlyn Quaife, for their views on these relationships in general and, in particular, with audiences at free concerts.

I have followed Stuart Greenbaum’s works since his student days in the late eighties. His recent composition, ‘800 Million Heartbeats’, the title track of his latest CD, is a favourite of mine. I asked Stuart to comment on having his works performed at free concerts. 

‘What drives me as a composer is great listening experiences and paying to attend a concert does not guarantee this. Perhaps it is true that you generally have to pay good money to experience great musicianship in a fine acoustic, but there are exceptions here also. Melbourne’s free Myer Music Bowl concerts are a good example and most Australian Universities offer free chamber music concerts also. There are many reasons to celebrate this – music should certainly be for all to enjoy at least some of the time. For my part, I try not to judge any audience, paying or otherwise, I’m often surprised by what people think and I now assume as a matter of course that they don’t all think the same thing! Classical music audiences are described as dwindling, so the industry ideally needs to be imaginative in what it offers.’

In reply to my question about funding, inspired by some trepidation about what the proposed Federal Budget cuts might do to the availability of free concerts, Stuart, who is an Associate Professor at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and Head of Composition there, said, ‘For the MCM’s part, we do have bequests, such as the Hanson-Dyer bequest, which enable us to stage free orchestral concerts in major venues and the regular Monday lunch hour program in Melba Hall during the teaching semesters. All these concerts cost money and they are certainly not subsidised by the Federal Government which, for many years now, has been withdrawing from supporting the real cost of educating Australian tertiary students.’

Merlyn Quaife is a versatile and distinguished soprano. She has performed in operas, including contemporary works by Australian composers, oratorio, Lieder and chamber music. Merlyn was awarded an AM in the 2013 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to music. She has a busy schedule which also includes teaching at Monash. In the interview she spoke of some of her current and recent involvements. 

‘I’m part of Songmakers Australia and we perform the most interesting repertoire – great programs. I’m also a regular at St Francis’ Church in Lonsdale Street for Feast Days when Masses are performed with orchestra, soloists and choir. Last year I was in Opera Australia’s Ring as Ortlinde – that was fabulous! I also sang as soloist (Britten’s ‘Les Illuminations) with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra which was a delight. I’ve been fortunate to perform with all the Symphony Orchestras and all of the State Opera Companies too. Working with Vladimir Ashkenazy was wonderful – he’s a gorgeous man.’  

Merlyn spoke of free concerts as ‘a great way to introduce people to concert going’ and ‘wonderful for students or retirees on restricted budget who love music.’ She described the relationship between performer and audience as ‘like a conversation. The audience doesn’t speak but as a performer you can definitely feel if they are travelling with you.’ She said that she doesn’t experience any difference with this at free concerts but added that ‘perhaps the only difference is that some people arrive late and others have to leave early, particularly at universities, to get to their next class/lecture.’ 

Merlyn enjoys performing at free concerts at the Myer Music Bowl ‘where the applause at the end is like being at the football.’ She remembers one scheduled concert there ‘when it poured rain all day and while the seated area was full, no one could sit on the grass. The wind was so furious it was blowing rain in onto the seated area and I felt like I was on the bow of a ship in a storm at sea.’ Another memorable concert for Merlyn was when she replaced the RAN Band at very short notice. ‘They had been called to play at the funeral of one of our first losses in the Middle East. I sang “Imagine” and given the context of my being there it had very special poignancy.’ 

My own earliest memories of classical music concerts go back to the days of Music for the People in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. In my memory they were always held on sunny days with a symphony orchestra playing and a soprano singing. The soprano, most likely, was Glenda Raymond wife of Hector Crawford, the conductor and founder of these free events. I don’t remember what was performed, but knowing now that Glenda Raymond sang many of Dame Nellie Melba’s favourites, I may well have heard Gilda’s and Mimi’s arias in my childhood which may account, in part, for my love of the music of Verdi and Puccini.

The staging of operas, ballets, concerts and recitals is an expensive undertaking, sometimes extremely so, and ticket sales only cover a small percentage of the costs of these productions. Large and small companies inevitably rely on money provided by philanthropists, donors, and governments aware of the value of these productions. 

Melbourne is fortunate in having philanthropists, Betty Amsden and Maureen and Tony Wheeler who have donated millions of dollars for the Arts. The Wheelers donated five million dollars for Opera Australia’s production of the ‘Ring Cycle’ and Betty Amsden has given millions of dollars over two decades supporting the Arts Centre, the Victorian Opera and The Australian Ballet as well as new Australian works, including an opera, and a number of community and educational projects in music.  Each was awarded an AO in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for their support of the Arts. On a smaller scale, the Melbourne Recital Centre runs a ‘Share the Music’ initiative whereby the public are invited to donate amounts starting from as little as $30 to provide tickets to concerts for disadvantaged children, adults and communities.

In my opinion, Australia, as a developed country with a relatively small population, is ideally placed to draw on both the experiences of the USA, where foundations, companies, philanthropists and donors are the principal supporters of the arts, and Europe, where governments provide the bulk of the financial assistance for altruistic reasons alongside the more pragmatic imperative to develop the arts industry. I envisage a healthy hybrid of the two systems operating here and the day when all Australians can enjoy a wide-ranging wealth of classical musical experiences.

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