In 2013, the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music will celebrate 100 years since the opening of Melb Hall. Joel Carnegie tells its story.

Described by critics as one of “Melbourne’s serious music spaces” (Clive O’Connell, The Age) with “…a kind and loving acoustic” (The Strand, London) - Melba Hall has earned the reputation as being one of Australia’s finest concert venues and music education spaces.

Music studies at the University of Melbourne began in 1891, and by the early 1900s, there was a pressing need to establish new facilities. Whilst the building of a concert hall was part of the initial plans - this was not realized until 1912, when Dame Nellie Melba presented a concert to raise funds for the proposed concert hall. Featuring the Victorian Professional Orchestra, Dame Nellie Melba and the Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company, the concert raised £1000. The new hall, which was opened on 29 October 1913 by the Governor-General Lord Denman, was to be naturally named “Melba Hall”.

Although it is difficult to ascertain Dame Nellie Melba’s thoughts on the new venue, The Age reported on 1 May 1914, “The acoustics appear to be entirely satisfactory, and…in the Melba Hall the University Conservatorium possesses one of the finest concert rooms.”

Alumnus Professor Peter Tregear, currently head of the ANU School of Music, describes the hall’s use to include music lectures in the morning and orchestral rehearsals in the afternoon. “Classes were largely broad-based subjects - including music aesthetics, music history, style, and interpretation, whilst orchestral rehearsals, recitals and examinations also took place,” he said.

But it was not just arpeggios, scales and theory. In the 1930s, the wife of the Melba Hall caretaker used to supply students with cakes and pies, which were eagerly consumed in the common room between classes. In 1945, a short-lived Conservatorium Drama School was established, and paved the way for Melba Hall to be also utilised as a space for other theatrical ventures.

Melba Hall sketches

In 1978, an organ built by Roger Pogson of Sydney was acquired, and soon afterwards, the hall was extensively renovated. “The architecture is rightly recognized as a fine example of art nouveau Australian design. The aesthetic qualities are very high, and it is a functional and beautiful space,” said Professor Tregear.

Hon. Principal Fellow, Associate Professor Therese Radic agrees, “Melba Hall was originally a bleak place that was allowed to deteriorate. Darryl Jackson’s renovations made all the difference,” she said.

Across the years, Melba Hall has been prominent in the campus lives of thousands of students. “It serves as a portal building, a space that mediates between the outside world and the University,” said Professor Tregear.

Throughout the past 100 years, many notable Australian and international musicians and composers have graced the stage either as performers or educators. For many years, Melba Hall has also been home to regular Monday lunchtime concerts, enjoyed by both music students and the broader community.

Austrian-born violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler visited in 1925, Max Cooke, Ronald Farren-Price and Keith Humble all performed on stage, whilst French composer, Olivier Messiaen was present at Melba Hall in 1988. Current music students have recently delighted in appearances by opera stars Bryn Terfel and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as well as Andreas Scholl and Christian Lindberg.

Whilst the music curriculum and methods of delivery may have changed over the course of the century, all Conservatorium music students share a common bond - stories of the Melba Hall experience.

So as musical education on campus evolves into the 21st century, one hopes that Melba Hall will remain a pillar and inspiration to those who tread its boards.

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