by Chloe Hooper
In the audience, a man is conducting the familiar opening of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 with both his fists. Someone else hums loudly, while a man in a wheelchair makes guttural sounds of appreciation. “I like this music,” another enthusiast can be heard telling his carer: he turns and says the same thing, with no less delight, at regular intervals.
Before them, seventeen musicians from Inventi Ensemble are performing near the altar of the Knox Community Baptist Church. For the last fortnight, Inventi have been on a tour of Victorian nursing homes as part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s “Music Always” program. Their last two concerts are here at a church-run initiative for people with dementia called the Haven Day Centre; people from different care facilities, have also come along.
The richness of the French horn, flute, oboe, violin, viola, cello and double bass—in short, a symphony orchestra—fill this modest, cream brick space. Despite the lush sound, the concert, like the décor, is raw, stripped of pretension. Any fourth wall between the musicians and the audience has slid away. People clap wildly between movements and Peter Clark, a first violinist and the concert master, turns, bowing his head, hand to his heart, thanking the audience for their generosity. The less conventional sounds of rapture don’t seem to bother the artists, in fact, it’s the reverse: as the oboist Ben Opie says later, “an expression of joy, makes us feel more joy.”
Inventi was set up by Opie and the flautist Melissa Doecke, in part, to make music more accessible to those who can’t make it to the concert hall: they’ve played in asylum centres and schools, but taking an orchestra on a nursing home tour is one of their most ambitious projects yet. “Once you do it,” Opie says of this work, “you can’t not do it.”
The musician’s own feat of memory—their unfurling of these complex sounds—seems to trigger the memories of those in the audience, who nod along to passages they recognise, or smile at some private recollection. (In the nursing homes with elderly European immigrants, audience members reported they had felt transported back to their childhoods; to the waltzes of Vienna, the verbunkos of Hungary.)
The ensemble finish with the pick-me-up of Handel’s “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”. Afterwards, there is extended clapping, wolf-whistles. No one wants to leave an atmosphere charged with such vitality.
Minibuses pull up and people, often with walkers, are slowly helped out of the church’s foyer.
A carer pushes the wheelchair of a middle-aged man who is profoundly disabled towards the door. Her face is wet, blurred by tears. She approaches Opie and Doecke to thank them. The man, she says, usually does not move very much, and spends most of his time sleeping in bed. She pulls out her phone and shows them a video of him taken while they were playing. His head, his hands, his shoulders and torso, move exuberantly to the music— with every note he is transformed.
Chloe Hooper is an award-winning Australian author and our 2017 Writer-in-Residence.