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How does the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra fulfil its vision of ‘enriching lives through music’? Usually by presenting some of the most celebrated concerts in town, but there are also under-the-radar events that enrich lives in less conventional and perhaps even more profound ways. Events such as Symphony in a Day – an opportunity for community musicians to play shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the MSO annually – is one such example.

These professionals comprise roughly one-third of the day’s orchestra, explains Head of Learning and Engagement Nicholas Bochner. “It’s about maximising the number of chairs available to community musicians… but having that scaffolding of the MSO players among the non-professionals just lifts the standard.” Furthermore, they are led by the likes of the MSO’s Chief Conductor Jaime Martín. “It’s quite extraordinary for them to have that kind of experienced, charismatic individual on the podium,” says Bochner.

Symphony in a Day began in 2012 as part of the MSO’s increasingly broad and deep engagement with Victorians. In the past, “the place of symphonic music in society was assumed, but it’s been getting squeezed out,” observes Bochner, who joined the MSO in 1998 as Assistant Principal Cello.

“Over the last three decades the Orchestra has been taking more and more responsibility for ensuring symphonic music is still there for the general community.”

That’s something Bochner has actively championed throughout his career, even as a student when he designed and performed concerts for primary school children with his string quartet. “Communicating about music and connecting with new audiences is an integral part of being a musician,” he says, adding that this belief may stem from growing up listening to his electrician grandfather play piano.

It’s precisely for people like Bochner’s grandfather – with obvious musical skill and passion but who haven’t made music their career for various reasons – that Symphony in a Day was created. As Bochner observes, it has evolved into something more like “symphony in 24 hours”, with a rehearsal on a Friday evening and again the next day, culminating in a primetime performance. The audience is dominated by the community musicians’ friends and family, so an enthusiastic response is almost always guaranteed.

According to Bochner, who performed in several Symphony in a Day concerts before retiring as an MSO player a year ago, participants are diverse, from music teachers to CEOs. They are, however, often members of community orchestras – such as the Melbourne University Biomedicine Students’ Orchestra, which he conducts (another string Bochner has added to his bow lately, including being the MSO Cybec Assistant Conductor for Learning and Engagement in 2020-21).

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These community orchestra members are “people who have gone to a very high level with instrumental playing, but at that crucial moment have decided to pursue a different course of study.” Bochner thinks that, in a way, they are more committed
than professional players because “they do it in their spare time… and their passion is so strong”.

Recent Symphony in a Day concerts have featured Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 From the New World, while in 2024 Carlo Antonioli leads Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. These programming choices are determined by balancing comfort levels with challenge.

“Community musicians probably want to play relatively well-known symphonic works with us,” says Bochner. It can’t be too difficult, he adds, “but we’re not babying them. It’s meant to be a challenge, and it works best when you wonder if it’s going to come off or not. You get there on the day, they’ve all practiced, the conductor just brings it together, and everyone reaches a level that they weren’t sure they could even get to.”

He fondly recalls how “there’s a moment of exhilaration when you get to the end, and you’ve performed this incredible piece of music and everyone’s come together”, including Symphony in a Day’s diverse audience. “It’s a really joyous moment; a real joy in music and sharing.”

So what does it take to be part of this extraordinary experience? Applicants must be over 18, and Bochner recommends an Australian Music Examinations Board grade six qualification. He also suggests getting in early, but anyone hesitating is welcome to contact the Learning and Engagement team to have their questions answered. Otherwise “just apply and do it because it’s so much fun!”

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Symphony in a Day

Saturday 1 June 2024
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall

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