In Conversation: Chris Howlett

In Conversation: Chris Howlett

Creating 3MBS' Bach Marathon. 

Chris Howlett
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Chris Howlett

Creating 3MBS' Bach Marathon. 

The 3MBS Marathon is an absolutely epic event that pulls together some of Australia's finest local musicians over one day while celebrating the work of a singular composer - this year, the incomparable Johann Sebastian Bach. Can you tell me about the process of picking a composer and what drew you to Bach's output for the 2018 Marathon? 

It is true, it is a huge event and a real statement for what can be achieved by a small number of dedicated staff, many volunteers and a very generous collection of Australian musicians.  Bringing together the marathon this year, I wanted to connect in the concept of legacy. 3MBS has an amazing legacy supporting the community and sharing our passion for Melbourne classical music to those that are listening now, as well as those who will be listening in the future; a topic we discuss regularly at Board Meetings. Over 200 years, the Bach family had 50 professional artists including composers, performers and painters. There are very few families that have created such a profound legacy as the Bach's. 

How did you first get involved in 3MBS, where you are now the Chair of the Board, and why is independent radio so important to you? 

The first connection was during high school when I came to 3MBS in year 10 for work experience. It was the middle of Radiothon and I spent the week stuffing envelopes! My next contact was during the years at University when Yarra Trio/Melbourne Piano Trio began to perform on the radio; working on 3MBS was such an important element and a huge learning curve. It was vital for us to have this support so that we could build up our subscription series and start our career. The way 3MBS supports musicians is the reason I donate my time to the organisation, and is an enormous part of its value and position in the Melbourne musical landscape.

Any kind of cultural event is a sum of its (many!) moving parts and takes an absolute village to put together. As the artistic director of this exciting event, what is your role in the Marathon and how far in advance do you have to start working before the big day finally rolls around? 

We start in March of each year with my proposal to the board regarding the next composer and the confirmation of dates and venues. I then try to have the program set by July with all the program notes and biographies completed, which enables the marketing team to begin their planning. This year, I have been quite hands on as we have been without a General Manager for the last 4 months, and my position of Chairman meant I needed to step up in that sense. We have a fantastic team at 3MBS and we have all worked closely together to put together what will be out biggest marathon yet. 

Once you've put your wishlist of artists and repertoire together, how do you piece together the day, from both a musical and operational perspective?

Bringing the program and repertoire together is a very fluid event and often takessome UN-esque diplomacy as there are always favourite works that many artists want to play!

Does your approach to programming stay consistent across the many festivals and performances you put together, or does it change depending on the structure of the event? Thinking generally, what makes a good program for you? 

I try and make sure that each of the three festivals that I program have a very different feel - they also have individual comprehensive briefs which enables this. The one element that stays consistent however is the need to have a strong and intriguing mixture of well known works and hidden gems. It is this balance that I think makes for great programming.  

Can you tell me what drew you to artistic direction and whether your performance career has impacted on the way you approach the craft? 

It is an honour and responsibility to bring together artists and works for an event. My personal interest stemmed from starting the trio and learning how to balance a concert and subscription series. It has since grown to include the Sanguine Estate Music Festival which I work on with Howard Penny, Music in the Round at Abbotsford Convent and, of course, the 3MBS Marathon.  

For young musicians starting to put their own concerts together, do you have any words of advice about structuring a program? 

There are two main elements, I believe:

Firstly, find the balance between the well-known and the interesting - this enables you to capture a bigger market. Some patrons will want to hear classics like Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor and you'll be able to delight a new audience with some lesser known gems like Novák Piano Trio No 1.    

Secondly, find your own style and build your program/brand around this - there are a lot of concerts in Melbourne and you need to find your own voice.

3MBS' Bach Marathon is on Sunday 18th February at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Find out more here