Your Safety & Wellbeing

23 March, 2020

 

The opening of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on 12 February 1959 was a landmark in Melbourne’s history. The Bowl had been built in just 11 months, using innovative engineering and acoustical techniques, resulting in a strikingly modern venue where tens of thousands of people could gather to listen to music, and the city was ready to celebrate.

A set of commemorative albums recently donated to the Australian Performing Arts Collection by Baillieu Myer includes images that recall the excitement of the opening night at this now iconic Melbourne venue.

A vision of outdoor music

 

A sign in Alexandra Gardens advertised the venue’s Gala Opening

 

A sign in Alexandra Gardens advertised the venue’s Gala Opening. The first season of events included the free Sidney Myer concerts, Billy Graham’s evangelical crusades and Moomba. February 1959
Gift of Baillieu Myer, 2020
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The Bowl’s distinctive band shell – which directed the sound towards the audience and kept the orchestra dry – helped realise a long-held vision of Sidney Myer, who was inspired by the concerts he’d attended at the famous Hollywood Bowl. In 1929 he established a series of free outdoor concerts which were eventually moved indoors due to Melbourne’s changeable summer weather and the difficult acoustics of playing in the open air. Though Myer died in 1934, the opening of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl finally realised his inspirational vision.

Under a summer sky

 

The audience arrive for the Gala Opening of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl

 

The audience arrive for the Gala Opening of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl
Photograph by Richard Andrew-Cukielewski, 12 February 1959
Gift of Baillieu Myer, 2020
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Workers were still painting the numbers on the rows of seats as the orchestra rehearsed in the afternoon of 12 February, and the forecast was for unsettled weather. But joyously, the rain never came and the weather stayed warm.

The 2,000 invited guests – including the Governor General, Prime Minister and Premier as well as Sidney Myer’s widow Merlyn and sons Kenneth and Baillieu – sweltered in evening dress under the canopy.

According to newspaper accounts, the crowd of people who filled the grassed banks dressed more casually for the heat – bringing Thermos flasks of iced coffee and inflatable beach mattresses to sit on. The police estimated 30,000 people attended, 10,000 more than the nominal capacity.

Symphonies under the Stars

 

The combined orchestras play under the canopy

 

The combined orchestras play under the canopy
Photograph by Wolfgang Sievers, 12 February 1959
Gift of Baillieu Myer, 2020
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The Hungarian-American cellist and conductor Alfred Wallenstein had flown in to conduct the combined Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras. He was an appropriate choice, having gained fame conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in the 1930s, in concerts known as ‘Symphonies under the Stars’.

The program included works by Wagner, Berlioz and Bizet and the Hungarian pianist Andor Foldes performed Gershwin’s ‘Concerto for Piano and Orchestra’. Robert Hughes’ swirlingly dramatic ‘Essay for Orchestra’ (1953) was the most modern, and only Australian, work performed.

A proud night

 

Robert Menzies, Kenneth Myer, and the Lord Mayor of Melbourne address the audience

 

Robert Menzies, Kenneth Myer, and the Lord Mayor of Melbourne address the audience
Photograph by Laurie Richards, 12 February 1959
Gift of Baillieu Myer, 2020
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

In speeches, the Lord Mayor Frederick Thomas told the audience that the opening of the Bowl started “a new era in the life of Melbourne”. The Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, told the crowd that “the late Sidney Myer, in whose honour the Bowl has been built, came here as a migrant with nothing but his brains and his energy. By his courage, and vision, he built up a great empire as a merchant… He was an artist with delicate sensitivity, who knew literature and culture and loved to have things of beauty around him.”

A test of acoustics

 

The gala opening of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl

 

“The huge Silver Bowl, its canopy studded with 68 lights, was a dazzling sight”, said one newspaper
Photograph by Laurie Richards, 12 February 1959
Gift of Baillieu Myer, 2020
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

But the real test of the Bowl was to come. How would the daring design perform acoustically, and would the audience be able to hear the music?

Despite the huge crowd, the newspapers declared the Bowl’s acoustics a triumph. “Every note of the 140-piece orchestra was audible 300 yards [275 metres] back from the stage”, stated one reporter. Another claimed that “Even those far back up the grassy slopes heard perfect reproduction of the softest notes”.

A democratic place

That summer’s night in 1959 started an enduring and very Melbourne tradition of nights at the Bowl. “Melbourne, with its really peculiar weather patterns, has got the only purpose-built outdoor entertainment venue in Australia, and I think that says something about Melbourne”, observes David Anderson, Arts Centre Melbourne’s Head of Contemporary Performance.

Anderson, who managed the Bowl through its late 1990s refurbishment, observes that “the core idea of it being a place of music for the people” has been sustained over the years, because “there’s something incredibly democratic about the space.” Compared with indoor venues, “it just seems to see a far greater cross-section of people. That outdoor experience becomes very easy to grapple with.”

This year has highlighted the appeal and accessibility of an outdoor venue more than ever, as audiences at Live at the Bowl gather again to enjoy a quintessentially Melbourne experience of music and performance under the stars.

 

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