When Adele Schonhardt took a call from friend and frequent collaborator Chris Howlett on March 17, 2020, little did either Melburnian know their conversation would set them on an entirely new trajectory.
"We were concerned about the mental health of our colleagues as the concert halls closed and all our bookings vanished," Howlett, a cellist, festival director and producer, says of the COVID-19 impact.
"Musicians weren't going to be able to pay their rents or mortgages or provide food for their families."
Over the next several days, Howlett and Schonhardt - then media and public affairs manager at Musica Viva - hatched a plan to live-stream a series of classical music concerts by soloists and ensembles in their orbit, thereby providing the artists with much-needed income until lockdown lifted.
They quickly sourced a grand piano, along with high-resolution camera and sound equipment, from sympathetic sponsors Kawaii and 5stream.
Asked where to send the gear, their thoughts turned to opera conductor and theatre producer Greg Hocking, who runs Melbourne's Athenaeum Theatre.
"It's usually packed at that time of year because of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival but that had just been cancelled," Schonhardt says.
"Greg generously said we were welcome to use the venue for as long as we needed."
Launching over the final weekend of March 2020, the pair sold $17,000 worth of tickets for their opening concerts.
"From then on, we knew it had legs and two years later we're still using the fabulous Athenaeum from which to broadcast," Howlett says.
In that time, Australian Digital Concert Hall (formerly Melbourne Digital Concert Hall) has live-streamed 450 concerts featuring more than 2000 musicians to an estimated audience of 125,000 across the country, generating $1.8 million income for performing artists.
Crucially, more than a quarter of the venture's online audiences don't attend classical music concerts in real life.
That might be because they live regionally or have health concerns or caring responsibilities.
"So we're not cannibalising existing audiences," Schonhardt says.
"We're actually making music accessible to more people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to enjoy it live.
"That's the big growth opportunity for organisations like ours into the future.
"Digital is here to stay and we think it's imperative to continue to provide access for those people because they are out there and in big numbers."
During Melbourne's lengthy second lockdown from July to October 2020, when it wasn't possible to broadcast from the Athenaeum, Howlett and Schonhardt initiated the Passport Series of concerts.
"Each week we presented a concert from a different state, using what we call our 'concert hall in a box'. Our cameras accrued many frequent flyer miles as they jumped from Sydney to Adelaide, Perth to Brisbane," Howlett says.
It was a taste of things to come and the organisation later rebranded to reflect its national focus.
"Once we started broadcasting from elsewhere, the feedback from Melburnians was like, 'Oh my goodness, we didn't know Queensland's Camerata existed' and 'Wasn't it fabulous to see Sara Macliver singing over in Perth?'" Schonhardt says.
"And of those watching Melbourne concerts, more and more viewers were coming from outside of the city and even the state."
Australian Digital Concert Hall charges $20 a ticket, the entirety of which is passed on to the performing artist.
An additional $4 booking fee goes towards supporting technicians, stage managers and piano tuners, Howlett says.
"They might not be on the front cover of the annual brochures but without them, the industry would stop."
Federal and NSW government funding takes care of administrative costs.
Each performance can be viewed live or within 72 hours.
Schonhardt and Howlett focus on small-to-medium sized ensembles, orchestras, festivals and venues, as well as emerging-to-mid-career soloists.
"There's a huge barrier to entry for small-to-mediums to have their own live-streaming platform and it's not viable for there to be 50 different platforms," Howlett says.
"But with Australian Digital Concert Hall, every organisation has the ability to showcase their artists digitally."
Another reason to support soloists and smaller outfits is that they may miss some forms of government support because of their irregular work schedules.
"It's also easier to work with smaller groups, as they're more likely to be able to perform under lockdown or when restrictions are in place."
Whether live-streaming from the Athenaeum or elsewhere around Australia, the pair aims for at least four cameras at each concert.
For special events, such as opera, the tech can be scaled up.
"Last year, we broadcast Melbourne Opera's full-scale production of Macbeth with multiple cameras in operation and it turned out beautifully," Schonhardt says.
They can also save the day at short notice.
When the Australian Haydn Ensemble was forced to cancel its 2020 Christmas concert in Sydney's Angel Place, Schonhardt and Howlett didn't waste a moment.
"They could still perform in the venue but weren't allowed to have an audience, so we sent up the cameras and sent out an alert to everyone on our database, offering them the opportunity to view the concert at short notice," Schonhardt says.
"We had hundreds of people purchase tickets and the ensemble ended up with a larger audience than they would otherwise have had in person."
Skye McIntosh, the ensemble's founder, artistic director and principal violin, says the the pair "sprang into action and moved heaven and earth" to ensure the concert went ahead.
"If they hadn't been willing to help, we wouldn't have been able to perform for anyone," McIntosh says.
"Since then, we've made sure to have Australian Digital Concert Hall as an option for every tour, where possible, as it gives us peace of mind knowing that even if something unexpected were to happen, we would still be able to perform," she says.
The ensemble has also picked up extra fans.
"We have met new audiences from interstate who would otherwise not have known about the the Australian Haydn Ensemble or been able to attend a concert," she adds.
Australian Digital Concert Hall's 2022 season of about 200 concerts will have more of a focus on regional Australia, with the Bendigo Chamber Music Festival, of which Howlett is artistic director, coming on board.
There will be performances by, among others, the Australian Haydn Ensemble, Bach Akademie Australia, Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Camerata and Taikoz.
There are also concert series devoted to pianists, emerging artists, youth orchestras and women in jazz, the latter curated by noted songbird Katie Noonan.
And cellist Howlett will perform a program of sonatas and songs by Mendelssohn.
He jokes that Schonhardt might be the only person in Australia who left a full-time job at the beginning of the pandemic to go and work on a start-up.
"Of all the bold moves we've made over the last two years, that's probably the boldest," Howlett laughs.
Schonardt says they've chosen to keep the organisation lean.
"It's just us and a part-timer and that's because we want to pass on as much money to the musicians as possible," she says.
Looking ahead, the pair believes more arts organisations should be joining forces.
"We need to pool our resources and search for ways to create joint platforms to support artists," Schonhardt says.
"It's not about each organisation going out and fighting for itself. It's about what we can do collectively, so we emerge even stronger from this crisis, having learnt something from it."
For more information, visit australiandigitalconcerthall.com
Australian Associated Press