“ When Sidney Myer died he left the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra shares in Myer on the condition that every year we would perform these four concerts free for the people of Melbourne, so really we owe everything to his foresight and generosity,” explains Huw Humphreys, Director of Artistic Planning at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Now in its 52nd year the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts at Sidney Myer Music Bowl attract up to 10,000 people each concert. That’s not including the people on stage, which make up quite a number too. “It’s normally around 85 – 90 people, but for the last concert we’ll also have a choir of about 100 and five soloists,” says Humphreys, “so there could easily be about 200 people on stage.”
While the orchestra’s musicians are full time professional musicians, the choir is made up of people who have day jobs on top of their choir work. “It’s our own choir, it’s the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra chorus, they’re with us all year round,” says Humphreys. “We’re extremely proud of them. They’re all amateur musicians i.e. they all have jobs, and they sing at wonderful professional standards, their commitment to the chorus is extraordinary because they can be rehearsing two or three times per week on top of their jobs and then maybe doing two or three performances in a row. It’s an incredible commitment to the chorus.”
Humphreys is looking forward to presenting Australian talents in addition to showcasing guest principal conductor, Tadaaki Otaka. “We see these as really important concerts for us. We get wonderful audiences and it’s really important that we present our principal guest conductor in these concerts so that as wider audience as possible can see him, not just our subscription audience that come to Town Hall or Hamer Hall when it reopens. Our fourth concert’s with probably our favourite Australian conductor, Benjamin Northey and we’ve put together a wonderful program for his concert.
The second half is all the music of Percy Grainger, probably Melbourne’s most important musician, who died 50 years ago next year. We’re performing a number of his works in the second half, concluding with a really fantastic piece which is a tribute to Stephen Foster, the composer of Camptown Races and it’s kind of a series of variations on that song. It’s got a huge orchestra: choir, soloists, the whole kitchen sink of orchestration, so that’s going to be a lot of fun and the first half of that concert is actually a very poignant piece - it’s a piece written by the wonderful Australian composer Nigel Westlake in memory of his son who was killed a couple of years ago now, so it’s a kind of requiem for him. So the whole concert is full of Australian music with Australian performers and a very wonderful way to finish off what will be the 52nd season of the Myer Bowl.”
Aside from the last concert showcasing Australian pieces, the balance of the program presents classical erm... classics. “We’ve got wonderful programs through the rest of the concerts,” says Humphreys. “We’re doing Mahler’s fifth Symphony, we are performing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Mozart’s piano concerto No. 21, and we’re working mainly with Australian soloists in those concerts as well.”
There’s something magical about seeing a full symphony orchestra in action, let alone in the Sidney Myer Music Bowl with 10,000 of your closest neighbours (and for free). “I remember the first time I went to a Myer Bowl concert, it was a perfect night,” says Humphreys. “I was sitting out on the hill, I was listening to the wonderful sounds of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I was watching the sun set in the distance over the city – the sun was just coming down behind the sky scrapers and I thought, ‘there are worse places to be in the world right at this point’ and there’s just such a fantastic atmosphere. These concerts are really owned by the people of Melbourne.
They’re a gift to the people of Melbourne and there’s just such a warm atmosphere and there are always a large number of kids there. The informality makes it a perfect place to come and listen to classical music. As well as the sounds of the orchestra, you’ll hear the sounds of birds singing and the general hubbub of the city. It’s a very special atmosphere.” So Melbourne, the first 10,000 people to Myer Music Bowl claim this prize. Be there early, if the sun’s shining they’ve been known to have to shut the gates before starting time.
The MSO performances at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl are on Wednesday February 9,Saturday Feburary 12,Wednesday February 16 and Saturday February 19. They all begin at 7pm and each performance is free. Gates open at 4pm. For more details on specific performances check out mso.com.au.