From the Archives, 1959: Music Under A Silver Roof In A Garden Setting

First published in The Age on February 7, 1959.

IT IS A STIFLING LATE SUMMER NOON. There are a few workmen scattered about having their lunch — on the stage, on the cantilevered concrete steps at the side of the orchestra pit, on a seat where the first coat of paint has just dried. A whistle blows.

With Melbourne’s skyline as backdrop, spectators arrive for a concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 2001. Credit:Wayne Taylor

Suddenly what seems like an army of men reappear — carpenters, painters, men with sand blasting equipment, an architect, a contractor, the foreman and three engineers to test the sound. It is a great moment.

A record is put on and for the first time the stage and amphitheatre are filled with music. It pours out over the din of hammering and drilling high to the mastheads where tanned men in dark glasses are laying the last of the silver roofing. High over the hill amongst the trees the music vanishes. Eyes light up, greetings are exchanged. It makes you want to cheer.

This happening is but a few days away from the culmination of a dream — a dream that at 8 p.m. on February 12, in the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the King's Domain, Melbourne, will take tangible form: a dream that was but the germ of an idea on a hot summer afternoon in California in the school yard of a San Mateo primary school.

Artist’s impression. August 1957. Credit:The Age Archives

It was 1927. Sidney Myer, according to the friend who was with him, stood "thin as a reed, oblivious, eyes darting." transported by the music of some familiar Russian dances rendered in the open air, an idea made more real after a visit to an evening concert in the Hollywood Bowl with his wife. Merlyn Myer, six years later. The idea was to present symphonic music in Melbourne out of doors.

Sidney Myer.Credit:The Age Archives

Sidney Myer Loved music. He loved and had faith in the city he had chosen for his business and his home, and with an altruism which carried him into many realms of civic endeavor he participated in the musical history of Melbourne and became one of its great benefactors. It was due to his efforts that in 1932 one permanent symphony orchestra emerged out of the amalgamation of the two then existing orchestras — the university Symphony Orchestra and the former Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Sidney Myer insisted that the combined orchestras be called the Melbourne Symphony, raised a fund for it and gave an endowment to the University for the provision of free concerts. In the trust deed executed December 1, 1932, he established that some of these concerts be held in the open air.

Circumstances have greatly changed. The A.B.C. and the Victorian State Government have assumed financial responsibility for what is now the Victorian Symphony Orchestra, but the continuation of the free outdoor concerts in the new Music Bowl is but an extension of the days of the original concerts conducted by Professor (now Sir) Bernard Heine, Mr. Fritz Hart and William (now Sir William) McKie in the Alexandra and Botanic gardens.

These and other outdoor musical, ballet and theatrical events have now a permanent home — a concept come to fruition through the Charity Trust which Sidney Myer created by will. The trustees decided in 1955 to donate the Music Bowl to the people of Victoria, and it was announced by the then chairman of the Charity Trust, the late Sir Norman Myer, on February 28, 1956.

Thirty-two years between an idea and a reality is but a fleck on the foam of time. Not so in the life of a family. It is at least half an eternity. That the concept of a bowl should one day be achieved was a fixed idea of Merlyn Myer's, whose quiet urging enormously aided its advent, and whose thinking infused itself in the lives of her children, who treated it frivolously or seriously as occasion or years demanded.

"This is the place for a Bowl," one might say on a picnic, racing down a hillside to a clearing that would be the stage or, on a trip to Europe, walking through a strange German city hearing there was a sound shell just along the river. Or attending opera at Caracalla, or symphonic music in the Basilica of Maxentius on hot Roman nights; or, if in the United States, going to the Hollywood Bowl, or to Stern Grove in San Francisco, on Sunday afternoons. It all, somehow, some day, was going to tie in with the formation of a Music Bowl here in Melbourne.

It was found to be desirable to have a site close to the centre of the city, within easy reach of transportation, a quiet place for making music, with a long slope where a huge audience could have visibility of the performance.

When accessibility took precedence over quietness and the site in the King's Domain was chosen, it was found necessary to exclude the sounds of the city, and this was done by making a deep excavation and then erecting a covering over it, a covering unlike the rigid conventional expensive structure of a sound shell — a canopy, light and economical, that would enclose a vast area.

So revolutionary is the technique of the canopy roof that architects frequently had to work out problems as they went along. Credit:The Age Archives

For the architects it was an adventure in thought. For the contractor and engineers it was an adventure in construction. A new system of building was evolved in the form of a canopy-like structure with a roof of thin membrane (a half inch of weatherproof plywood sheeted on both sides with aluminium), bolted down to a cobweb-like frame of steel cables, the whole supported by two 70-foot masts pivoted to the earth, with the cables held in tension in the ground.

It turned out to be a dynamic structure and now that it is almost complete it stands out light and silver above the banks of newly sown bright green grass. It is beautiful in its utter simplicity, unadorned of external ornament and relying for its aesthetic strength just on the bones of its construction. It is an auditorium so simple that you are apt to forget the technicalities and the wealth of scientific material that went to make it possible. It seems almost as if a silver scarf had floated down to earth and been tied by three corners to the ground. Or as if a giant had arrived from Mars and left a gleaming parachute on the lawn.

Almost forgotten is the day when the model was placed on the site and the aerodynamic consultants explained that the tensions in the cables were tested by plucking them like violin strings and tuning them to what was the right sound which happened to be Middle G.

Like spiders in a web of taut, steel ropes, the Italian riggers prepare the canopy. Credit:The Age Archives

Forgotten are the months of excavation when the site was just an ugly gash rasped by bulldozers, cluttered with rubble, bogged down with mud.

Long ago seem the days of temporary scaffolding when the seven huge main cables weighing 7 1/2 tons each were pulled slowly over the top of the two towers and plunged 70 feet into the ground; or when the seven Italian riggers, nimble as monkeys, swung in the air securing the secondary cables, while far beneath there emerged the stage, complete with TV, sound and lighting control rooms, the stage assembly areas and rooms for the artists end orchestra, faced with white brick.

No, the details merged with the whole readily, and there was a certain elusive beauty and fantasy about the project which gripped the hearts and minds of all the people working on it, so that the job was tackled with generosity and happiness and a real determination to see that it was completed on time. And the City of Melbourne greatly assisted by providing the valuable ancillary works of landscaping, top dressing, grassing and sprinkler systems, the electrical station, footpaths and access roads.

There may be those who, worrying whether the seats will be comfortable, would like to hear of the hilarious afternoon when several of those who tested them sat in the pouring rain on a tilting seat on a mud bank laughing their heads off at the pretence of being at a concert. (And finding the seats not to their liking, still in the pouring rain, went testing seats in all the outdoor stadiums in Melbourne, and even then took a score of meetings to find the right solution.)

Construction nearing completion, January 1959.Credit:The Age Archives

There may be those who, worrying about the weather, will ask if they should see the centre of the canopy move whether the whole edifice is going to be blown away before their eyes. They need not worry. The model has withstood a 95 m.p.h. gale and should the canopy move two feet, it is only as expected. There may be those who worry, about the acoustics and do not realise that no matter how great the application of the laws of physics and the using of testing devices, there can be no real acoustic test until 2000 people, acting as sound absorbers, are in their seats and the orchestra is playing. Even then there may have to be minor adjustments, and this first season will have to be an experimental one.

The Music Bowl is not an opera house but an outdoor auditorium.

The complexity in administration must not be forgotten for when the secretary manager said "we are all gazing into a crystal ball," it did not necessarily mean that the various people representing the City Council, the state Lands Department, the University, the A.B.C., the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the representatives of the Sidney Myer Charity Trust were all gazing from the same angle. But out of the pooling of diverse interests has come much strength and the institution which, as I have mentioned above, seems literally to have arrived from the skies, is, in spite of its newness, already well grounded administratively on its feet.

Yes, the Bowl will open soon. But the intense excitement of the opening night will be but a prelude to the variety of programmes for which it is booked this coming season, there being no fewer than 20 definite bookings in the first seven weeks. The programmes vary from the double symphony orchestras of the first two concerts, to the Music for the People series, the visit of Billy Graham, and the various events of the Moomba festival which include ballet, massed bands, a four-choir festival and a concert performance of a comic opera. It is to be hoped that the outdoor concerts in the King's Domain will be equal in standard to the best of those performed indoors, which is exactly what Sidney Myer wished for, those many years ago.

For the City of Melbourne's development, this year has started well. But there is still the Cultural Centre on the Wirth's Park site to be achieved, and the hoped-for City Square of the future.

A record breaking crowd of 200,000+ gathered to watch The Seekers perform as part of Music for The People concerts. March, 1967.Credit:The Age Archives

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