The musical leadership of AYO alumnus Chris Howlett has helped shape the way Australian audiences have enjoyed classical music both regionally and during lockdown. Read about his work as a director, producer and cellist in this interview.

AYO alumnus cellist Chris Howlett smiles at the camera. He is holding a cello and is wearing a dark grey suit.

How did your musical career begin?

My musical life started when I was 6 and I wanted to be like my Grandpa who was an enthusiastic drummer, although not professional, and would regularly play on 3MBS’ Jazz program. It was very cool to sit up in bed and listen to your Grandpa perform on the radio. I wasn’t tall enough for the drums at age 6 so the music department transitioned me to the cello. Cello was a huge passion but also an amazing enabler throughout school – I received a scholarship to Wesley where there was not only a great music program, but also sport and debating, and opportunities to travel around Australia and Europe.

At University, cello became the main focus and attending AYO National Music Camp in 2004 was a real highlight and motivator. Studying in Vienna with regular AYO tutor Howard Penny was a professional turning point for me – my technique was rebuilt and from there chamber music became my life.

How did you make your way into a career in artistic direction?

My passion for chamber music was the start. Through my university studies The Yarra Trio/Melbourne Piano Trio was started. I learnt so much from this venture, from how to create our own subscription series, to the facilitation of regional tours and what was involved in running a small business. My first major artistic direction work was, and is still, in the form of co-direction with my best friend (and godfather to my son) Howard Penny, for Sanguine Estate Music Festival. Howard has an amazing knowledge about how to balance a program and I continue to learn so much from him. Artistic direction is just like cello, it takes practice and time. Going down the Naxos music library rabbit hole is amazing—you never know where you will end up.

Chris Howlett performs on cello with audience members watching on.

What are some of your favourite projects you’ve worked on?

As a cellist I’m fortunate to say there have been a few highlights. Playing with trio at our first professional concert at Melba Festival at Tarrawarra in the Yarra Valley was an incredible feeling. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at the end of AYO National Music Camp in Canberra was also an experience that I will never forget. The other highlight is sitting in a piazza in Trieste, after the prize winners’ concert, in full tails at 5am talking with musicians from around the world.

I love bringing together the 3MBS marathon each year, the Bach Family Marathon in 2016 is still my favourite of the 8 years. Sanguine is incredibly special each year because 95% of the guests return each year and it has become an extended family.

This year has been huge – firstly the sold out Bendigo Chamber Music Festival and now the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. It has been incredible to see the reaction from musicians and music lovers to both projects and has been great to support so many colleagues over the last nine weeks at MDCH.  

How important is the influence of Australian musicians and composers in your collaborations?

Australia’s talent pool is incredible, and one of the silver linings of this COVID-19 situation is that it will enable an Australian focus over the next 18 months, while international travel is unsure. Supporting Australian composers at Melbourne Digital Concert Hall is a main focus because all artists have been affected by this situation – those who write for the stage, those who perform on the stage and those who enable the artists to be on the stage.

A view of the inside of an auditorium. The seats are red and the walls are light brown wood panels.

As you mentioned earlier, recently you’ve been the Co-Director of both the Bendigo Chamber Music Festival and the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. How do mammoth projects such as these come together, and what were the major differences between the two?

These two projects have made for a rather epic 2020. Both were risky, in that they were completely independent and without backing but both came together differently. 

For Bendigo Chamber Music Festival, Howard and I spent six weeks quietly and furiously planning, designing, printing and setting every element together to enable a big reveal – a completely set project with every element, from players to programs to website to sponsors, aligned and organised before announcing.

For Melbourne Digital Concert Hall speed was key – there were only nine days between an initial conversation with Adele Schonhardt to the first broadcast. We had to do something to help our colleagues and our music community. It’s also very different to Bendigo Chamber Music Festival because there is no live studio audience, but it’s very exciting to enable musicians to connect with music lovers that may not be able to regularly attend concerts due to health, age or location.

What’s on the horizon for you next?

As with everyone at the moment, it is a wait and see game. We have developed multi-faceted plans for the festivals, and my China touring company will be in hibernation for a while.

In the meantime, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has created a momentum that will enable us to broadcast live around Australia for the medium and probably long term, and through this we hope to support as many musicians as we can.