It’s 1am, and many Tasmanians are winding down at the end of their evening – or have fallen into a peaceful sleep already.
Robert Gibson is not one of those Tasmanians.
It’s March 2020, and having just helped launch the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s first major video platform, he is wide awake.
The TSO Content Manager and Special Projects Curator has spent his days working on the new TSO Daily Dose initiative and, in these early hours of the morning, he reaches out to local digital producer Caleb Miller. Together, they fast-track a recording for release on YouTube, so people around the world – in various stages of lockdown – can enjoy their classical music fix over breakfast.
It must be live online by 8am.
Such a last-minute dash wasn’t a rare experience for Robert when the TSO Daily Dose was first launched. It’s this level of drive that’s enabled the orchestra to keep moving forward through the pandemic, leading the way as it represents its strong community of performing artists in Tasmania.
“I’ve learnt never to underestimate the passion of TSO musicians. When a challenge is placed before them, they step up!” Robert says.
Though the TSO Daily Dose launched as a near-instant response to the COVID-19 shutdowns, it can’t be mistaken for a rushed project. The sophisticated curation of content, selection of talented guests, and high production value of each video have proven the initiative is far more than a substitute for the “real thing” in orchestral music. In the digital world, it has become the real thing.
The free web series has exceeded 100,000 views, with many viewers returning to it day after day. Though Robert is quick to note the TSO has a loyal audience in Tasmania – with locals appreciating a “deep and powerful connection with the orchestra” – a quarter of those who now watch the Daily Dose are international viewers.
“I suppose people are checking in with us regularly because they’ve been seduced by what we’ve been offering and, as the content is different from one day to the next, they’re curious to see what we’re up to,” Robert muses.
The level to which the TSO indulges this curiosity is unlike any other digital offering in Australia. Where some initiatives have turned to live streaming events – also an impressive COVID-19 response – the TSO has nevertheless pursued its own direction, working directly with players and talent beyond the performance of music. Robert admits a daily livestream would be “well beyond our resources”, or those of any major orchestra. So their Daily Dose alternative has included performances curated specially for the video series, never-before-seen concert footage, and fresh interviews with local talent.
The resulting collection of more than 100 videos offers a rare and timeless viewing into the inner workings of the orchestra, at once technical and accessible. As Robert explains, “Daily Dose is able to open a window onto a much larger and more varied TSO than the one that even our regular concert-goers would see”.
In its first month, Robert was responsible for helping conceptualise and curate the content to a strict, self-imposed daily deadline (even when it kept him working into those early hours of the morning). The knowledge of a changing arts climate started to intercept the organisation from the middle of March, when the team realised “concert-going in 2020 was going to be problematic”.
The orchestra still performed its 14 March Brahms event to an empty Federation Concert Hall – though, this wasn’t in vain: it was recorded and would air on 20 March as the first Daily Dose video in the series. As TSO harpist Meriel Owen said in her interview about this concert: “We were ready. Even though we’d had the news that there would be no audience, we were still [thinking] let’s perform as beautifully as we possibly can, because we’re professionals.”
Two days after this unusual performance was captured, CEO Caroline Sharpen called a meeting to organise the TSO’s strategy and audience offerings moving forward. Within 24 hours, TSO Principal Bass Trombone Mitch Nissen came on board as presenter, and the rest is history.
“From the very beginning, there was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for the project and we wanted to harness the energy in the organisation,” Robert says.
During a time in which arts administrators and performers across the world are facing unusual and life-altering challenges, the TSO projects and encourages positivity among its players – and “the musicians have been outstanding”.
“TSO Daily Dose has provided the forum for TSO musicians to think creatively and to extend and develop their skills as professionals. This is something they’ve embraced with ever-greater confidence, having seen the success of Daily Dose in the first six weeks or so.”
When Robert mentions the players are extending their skills, he’s referring to more than the development of public-facing and digital content; though, these too are vital skills in the current arts landscape. He is also referring to the freedom granted to the players to “explore corners of the repertoire outside standard orchestral music”. Videos have seen them play through Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, unusual chamber music variations including West Side Story Suite for double bass ensemble, and works by local composers (some of them being TSO musicians, too!).
“Without a doubt, the best thing that Daily Dose has done for the TSO as an organisation is that it’s energised the musicians and kept them focused. This at a time when orchestral players elsewhere in Australia are mostly feeling frustrated and demoralised,” Robert reflects.
“A challenge for me right now is trying to find spaces in the schedule as so many musicians wish to participate.”
As the year progresses, musicians of the TSO are once again starting to make music together, working from a state that’s remained free of COVID-19 in recent months and has consequently relaxed its lockdown measures. Small groups of about 16 players are brought to the stage for rehearsals, and while it’s not ideal – physical distancing bringing its own challenges to the rehearsal room – it signals change is on the horizon.
“We’re planning on exploring online delivery more thoroughly between now and the end of the year – including getting the musicians back on the stage of Federation Concert Hall, which will mean that we can field larger ensembles than what we’ve been presenting on TSO Daily Dose.”
The videos have unarguably offered comfort to viewers who may be in social isolation, or are simply trying to find normality or routine amidst a changed way of life. Public responses on social media hint at the way the series has helped them to adjust, with some mentioning the series “puts a spring in my step”, and others showing support with a simple “thank you!” for the music and videos. The TSO’s venture into digital content has welcomed and involved its community, allowing people to witness – perhaps for the first time – the way online offerings can so meaningfully complement live music.
“In a strange kind of way, we might look back on the pandemic of 2020 as a crucially important period in the history of the TSO; a time which forced us to do things differently, think creatively, explore alternative repertories and reach audiences which hitherto would have been unimaginable to us,” Robert says.
“Without question, Daily Dose has put the TSO on radars far and wide, and that can only be a good thing.”