On a recent Friday night, I found myself in the orange-velvet upholstered Hamer Hall, a concert venue of bunker-like construction, built into the south bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne. Architectural firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall completed a redevelopment of Hamer Hall in 2012, and I was looking forward to seeing their refreshed space.
In a statement one of the architects, Ian McDougall, explained that Hamer Hall ‘has two fathers: the acclaimed local architect, Sir Roy Grounds, and equally acclaimed artistic designer, John Truscott.’ Grounds was the initial architect for the project, but was later replaced by Truscott, who had an entirely different concept for the building: where Grounds vision was raw and brutalist, Truscott set about bejeweling the space. The renewed Hamer Hall pays homage to both architects’ palettes: gold leather walls, bright carpet, peach paint, exposed concrete and bronze bannisters. (A friend also commented the foyer seems to have as many escalators as Galeries Lafayette.)
As I entered the hushed concert space, a little giddy from the splendid interiors, members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra were milling around on stage, taking their seats and twisting in their chairs to chat to a violinist or cellist behind them. I was surprised; it was all so casually brilliant. As a first-timer, I was smitten with Hamer Hall and the orchestra already.
I was at Hamer Hall to see the MSO perform the All-Beethoven Program, which I’d read would include Beethoven’s Coriolan: Overture, Symphony No.1 and Piano Concerto No.5 Emperor. The program copy described it to me as: ‘A journey through Beethoven’s heroic decade culminat[ing] in his mighty Emperor concerto, featuring one of the leading pianists of our time.’ Between two movements of the symphony, the orchestra paused and rested their instruments. A spattering of the audience applauded, this rookie included. But most knew to hold their praise at this point. It was like I’d found a new club; I was pretty excited to have just learnt a conduct rule.
I realised I’d come to the performance without any idea of what to expect. Of all the content I read on the Internet day-to-day, I’d not encountered any spoilers or chatter to influence my experience of the orchestra. It felt surprisingly refreshing, and it dawned on me that I rarely encounter any of the cultural happenings in my life (from TV series to art shows) with this much ‘not knowing’.
My recent television preoccupation, Orange is the New Black, is just one example of a series that led me to fall into an online commentary rabbit hole, including many, many hours lost uncovering the real life Piper Kernan, the woman whose memoir the show is based on, obsessively establishing the truth from fiction. At my office, a blanket social media ban was instilled one recent Monday to avoid even a whisper of information being leaked about the Breaking Bad finale that had just aired in the US – a drastic but necessary precaution. By having an Internet connection, it’s very rare for me to experience anything without having spent some amount of time filtering and collating other peoples take on it.
At Hamer Hall, the act of just sitting and listening was in itself an unchartered experience; one entirely distinct in its process from engaging with something I was familiar with – watching television, for example. The orchestra, after a time, appeared tableaux-like, and I was unsure who I should visually moor to on the stage; having no significant visual variations was disarming. Throughout the performance, I needed to remind myself, many times, that the sounds I could hear were happening in real time, right in front of me. As the concert progressed there were moments where the procedure of listening and interpreting (or trying my best to) felt intensely private, followed by moments where I would forget where I was. Many of my thoughts went to trying to establish what the right kinds of thoughts–in response to the music–even might be.
After the concert, I spoke with my grandfather, a seasoned MSO patron, about the performance, and I did seek out a couple of reviews. Though really, there’s something appealing about the idea of a ‘real-life’ education. Simply, to buy tickets for next year’s concert season and attend happily uninitiated, settling into my seat to wise-up the traditional way.
Belle Place is editor of the Readings Monthly. She has worked as a copy editor with Rainoff, a Sydney and New-York based publisher of art books, and is a co-editor of Offline, a cultural journal published by The Blackmail. She lives in Melbourne.