Concerts Sans Frontières – Making Classical Music Accessible to all

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Two immensely talented, world-class Australian musicians are making a difference to the music scene in Paris this year by launching a series of free, highly accessible and open to all, classical music concerts. The series is called Concerts sans Frontières (Concerts without Borders).

This ambitious and exciting initiative was instigated by Bonnie Brown, the acclaimed Australian pianist, who is renowned in expatriate circles for her devotion to teaching, which won her the title of Best Music Teacher in Paris 2017. Bonnie has been living in Paris for the last 10 years, and as well as teaching, is well established as a top international classical performer. We asked her how the idea of creating the concert series came about:

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Photograph: Ron Brown www.ozflix.tv

«I have had the great fortune of being invited, often, to wonderful performances of Australia’s finest artists when they visit Europe on various concert tours. However these performances are generally for a select list of invited guests and always entirely closed to the public. Every time I would see and hear these artists I would think “Wouldn’t it be amazing if the general public could have access to these performances! If we could not only show off the finest of Australian high culture and classical music, but share this cultural capital with the world”. Speaking after the concerts with the artists, I was told that despite their being invited all over Europe to perform in huge halls and festivals, Paris was especially closed and they were unable to break into any public performance venue. It seemed to me such a waste to have these amazing musicians come all this way and at all this expense from Australia, and then to not share this with the people of Paris. Thus the idea for Concerts Sans Frontières was born.»

Bonnie’s partner in this project is Michelle Wood, a long-term close friend, fellow Australian and member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra cello section. When Bonnie asked Michelle to join her as artistic director on this venture Michelle was thrilled: «I know full well the difficulties that international musicians face when touring, through my own experiences in a string quartet for 14 years. Having the opportunity to present wonderful concerts, for ‘international’ Australian musicians who are touring or living in Europe and their amazing colleagues seemed like the perfect idea to celebrate Australian music-making worldwide. Sharing a special project like this is amazing, and as we really have a very similar work ethic and aesthetic, we’re able to divide tasks between us very easily.»

Bonnie and Michelle have enjoyed being close friends for almost 20 years. «I still remember vividly the day Michelle and I met at university.» says Bonnie, «She was sitting in the foyer of the Conservatorium of Music and no doubt had some kind of to do list happening. (I am an enormous fan of to do lists to the point that I actually have a to do book). Somehow when I saw her sitting there, I must have been unconsciously attracted to her cool and organised attitude. We starting chatting and have more or less been the closest friends ever since. In addition to our wonderful friendship we have also played together since we were very young and have only the best memories of our musical collaborations. It is truly wonderful to embark upon this project together, because I trust Michelle implicitly and we really do share a vision.» Michelle also remembers how Bonnie has always been supportive of other musicians, even from that young age, «She broke the mould for pianists at our university, who largely kept to themselves and didn’t really associate with the ‘orchestral musicians’ very much. Instead she was there at all of our concerts cheering us on.»

Michelle, however, is not based in Paris herself, so preparing the concert series has been no simple task; each has had to allow for the other’s very busy schedule as a professional performer and cope with the added complications of communicating and coordinating for the project when in very different time zones. Fortunately both artists are extremely organised, and they have been lucky enough to have the support of another key partner, the Australian Embassy, which will be hosting the concerts at its wonderful location near the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

The aim of Concerts Sans Frontières, is, as Michelle explains, «to provide a forum for world class, acclaimed Australian musicians and their international colleagues to present concert experiences for the public that are accessible, fun and inspiring.» «Classical music can be a little intimidating for those who don’t have the habit or experience of attending classical music performances.» adds Bonnie, «There is an idea that it’s sitting silently in a big hall while a whole lot of people dressed in black sit on a stage, untouchable, performing music that audiences don’t totally understand (and feel bad for not understanding, which is ridiculous, as it is hardly their fault if this is the case!), and that the whole experience is a little austere and foreign. We want to totally break that image of classical music and make it a warm, friendly, even educational experience for our audience members.» Michelle agrees, «This should feel like audiences come into a ‘living room amongst friends’ and are then treated to a wonderful hour of music and incredible artistry. Classical music in particular often gets given the bad reference of being elitist because tickets are often beyond the reach of many people, when in actual fact, it’s some of the most beautiful, inclusive music and can be absolutely amazing to see live. We want to give this opportunity to as many people as possible because it can be truly life-changing. I like to think of it as like when you see people of all ages and from all walks of life eating an ice cream: that look of sheer delight, and joy, and happiness. That’s the effect music has on people too, no matter whether they are 5 years old, or 95, or have seen a concert before, or not, or live in a mansion, or in a small apartment. Music’s enjoyment is universal. So why should we not make our concerts as universally accessible as possible?»

Photograph: Ron Brown - www.ozflix.tv
Photograph: Ron Brown – www.ozflix.tv

The pieces performed at the concerts will be commented in both French and English, an added personal touch from the performers, who will tell their own stories behind their experiences of playing them. The intention is that this storytelling will make the audience feel included in the musical journey. It is another reason for keeping the concert length to just one hour. «A one-hour format is good so as not to break the thread of the storytelling, but also because, even as musicians, we find that it’s a perfect length of time to keep concentration and energy there.» says Bonnie, «Plus, as we are hoping to introduce classical music to a new audience, one hour seems like a realistic amount of time to focus for a first outing.»

Bonnie is also keen to promote the educational aspect of the concerts: «Given how deeply devoted I am to musical education, I hope that families will bring their children along and that the experience will motivate these children to learn music or at least be the classical audiences of the future. Civilizations are remembered for their art, and the dissemination of this art is something I am incredibly devoted to.»

CSF 2018 from Michelle Wood on Vimeo.

As well as opening up the music to new audiences, Concerts Sans Frontières will also provide a platform for the musicians to celebrate the joy of international connections.

For this inaugural year, Bonnie and Michelle have reached out to their old friends and colleagues (who all just happen to be some of the world’s finest classical musicians), to ask them to perform, and they have been absolutely delighted by the response they have had so far. «The way they have responded to the idea has been extraordinary!» Bonnie tells us, «Everyone is so excited about coming and performing. We have been truly overwhelmed by their enthusiasm, especially as they are all professional musicians and already in such high demand, we thought that even if they wanted to perform perhaps it might not fit with their existing schedules. It’s been amazing to see how willing they all are to make it work and be here to play with us! In inviting new musicians to join us for different concerts, I look forward to forging new connections. One thing is certain, there is nothing quite like the bond you have with someone once you have performed with them on stage. It creates deep, emotional connections between musicians that words cannot describe (understandably as our primary language in this circumstance is music). We also want to touch people from all walks of life, all cultural backgrounds, all languages, all ages and all levels of musical understanding. It is my view that music unites people like no other art form and being a part of that for me is something I am so grateful for in my life, and why I devote my life to music.»

Photograph: Ron Brown www.ozflix.tv
Photograph: Ron Brown www.ozflix.tv

Michelle adds, «There is no replacement for the innate connection that some musicians have with each other, and we hope to create that magic in every concert. There is somehow no need for words, everything seems easy, and the musical dialogue is natural and effortless – they are the performances you live for as a musician!»

In the face of such obvious enthusiasm, we gave the pair of friends a very difficult task when we asked each to describe the Concerts Sans Frontières series in just two words. «Incredible, and unmissable!» and «Exhilarating and transcendent!» were their replies: a heartfelt recommendation for what promises to be a most enjoyable musical experience.

The first concert in the series ‘Scenes from Childhood’, chamber music for the piano, violin and cello, will take place on Sunday 3rd June at the Australian Embassy in Paris. Tickets are limited and, for security reasons, pre-registration is required. Find out more at www.csfmusic.com

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