Where dreams come to life

Nick Place Fri, 22 Sep 2023

Melbourne Recital Centre’s Making Waves program offers Year 12 music students the opportunity to have their compositions brought to life by professional musicians on the same stage that has played host to many of the world’s great artists. This creates ‘instant career pathways’ in their minds – none of which would be possible without philanthropy.

Alicia McFarlane lived by the Murray River, seven hours from Melbourne and was doing Year 12 at a state school that did not have an established music program. This wouldn’t be a problem unless, like Alicia, you happen to dream of being a musical composer, creating works worthy of the world-renowned stage at Melbourne Recital Centre.  

This is why it was a dream for Alicia to be able to tune in live, virtually, to a workshop between young composers and pre-eminent Melbourne string ensemble, the Flinders Quartet. It enabled her to hear how the ensemble took advice from the composers, how they included specific direction in the score for each instrument’s performance, and how the cello and violin explored their interplay during rehearsals.

This is Melbourne Recital Centre’s Making Waves program, offering workshops for young composers and established professional musicians – to the benefit of all. 

“Making Waves was born out of a need in the education system,” says the Centre’s Learning and Access Manager Belinda Ashe. “Virtual School Victoria, which is Distance Education, rebranded and came to us with a gap in what they believed they could deliver for their students. So, we took on the role of presenting the world premieres for student compositions, showcasing these works, but also allowing the students to workshop their pieces with professional musicians to improve that final VCE assessment task. It’s priceless for the student.”

Performances of the pieces used to happen in the Virtual School Victoria staff room. Now they happen in Melbourne Recital Centre’s Primrose Potter Salon. Things have stepped up. “What’s extraordinary is that these students’ Year 12 compositions are being brought to life by professional musicians on the same stage that has played host to so many of the world’s great artists. To me, that’s instantly creating career pathways,” says Melbourne Recital Centre CEO Sandra Willis. 

Up on the Victoria-NSW border, having watched and learned, Alicia wrote a composition for her VCE that was good enough to be selected for the second phase of Making Waves. This is where pieces are honed, ready for performance by the Flinders Quartet in front of an audience. Her piece then went on to March for Women, a showcase of female composers, inspiring her to the extent that she decided to double the BA (Science) she began at the University of Melbourne with a concurrent Music Diploma because now, as she told Belinda, she had dared to dream she could compose for a living.

For Belinda, this was a moment of pure joy, to hear a tangible validation of the work Melbourne Recital Centre has been undertaking since its opening 15 years ago, but even more so in the last seven years. The Centre is not only about hosting the most amazing and diverse musicians possible, but also about encouraging, training and inspiring future composers. 

The reality is that none of the above would be possible without philanthropic support. The Centre’s extensive Learning and Access program is funded by a diverse community of donors, philanthropic foundations and government funding initiatives. These include the Victorian Department of Education’s Strategic Partnerships Program and the Hugh D T Williamson Foundation, who provide direct support to the Making Waves program. “We are funded by the state government to keep the lights on and open the doors, but so much of what brings this building to life requires significant additional support from the private sector, whether that’s from box office sales or philanthropic contributions,” Sandra says. 

The Centre’s Head of Development, Alistaire Bowler, explains that the impact of philanthropy runs even wider in allowing the Centre to nimbly explore musical and learning opportunities for Victorians of all ages and from all walks of life. This is enabled by an ambitious consortium of philanthropic foundations and individual donors who have come together, pooling their resources to amplify their impact and helping the Centre achieve deeper and longer-term outcomes. The goal is to make the Centre’s learning and access programs accessible and available to all music lovers, either free of charge or at the lowest possible price, requiring funders who understand that it’s not about one-off experiences as much as developing deep and ongoing connections between Victorians and the Centre. 

It has taken many years of robust evaluation and relationship-building to develop the level of trust and co-operation that means that Centre’s Learning and Access team can operate intuitively. The team uses the consortium’s funding to pilot programs, work with specific communities to explore the best options for inclusion and to fine-tune existing programs. Even Belinda’s job was only possible because of an early philanthropic grant from the William Buckland Foundation. “They offered catalytic funding for us to explore the concept and pilot the role, which we are delighted to say has now been fully embedded in our organisation,” Alistaire says. 

“Melbourne Recital Centre is a connector of dots, a matchmaker of different communities,” he says. “We’re a meeting point for lots of small, independent professional arts groups, of schools, funders, the private sector and of government. We’re able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to add value and create impact.”

Sandra enthuses that the Centre’s offering to the community continues to evolve and that sustained support from the philanthropic community has played a major role in enabling the organisation to embrace change. “The breadth of the Centre’s program has grown significantly from when it first opened in 2009 with a wide range of musical styles and genres now represented on our stages. This is coupled with an extensive suite of learning access and outreach programs that enable us to bring the joy of music into the lives of more Victorians. These impactful programs have only been able to blossom thanks to the generous and ongoing philanthropic support that we receive from our community,” she says.

Photo credit: Melbourne Recital Centre