At home with William Hennessy

First published in CutCommon. With thanks to CutCommon and Dr Emma Sullivan
For most freelance musicians, there are few things more important than being busy. A full diary translates to peace of mind. There are few guarantees about work in the long term, so we seize every opportunity (often spreading ourselves a little thin in the process).

The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, of which I have the privilege of being the principal double bass player, is an orchestra of freelance musicians. We love nothing more than coming together for rehearsals, concerts, tours, and education programs. And when we aren’t working together, our members are out in the wider music community teaching, playing chamber music, and working with other fantastic orchestras in Melbourne and beyond.

When the restrictions for large gatherings were introduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our busy lives changed in an instant.
For me personally, I was cancelled for four work engagements within 10 minutes of the initial announcement. And the cancellations kept coming.
Soon, we were facing the reality that our lives probably would not be busy for quite some time. And while there is nothing more important than the health and wellbeing of our society at large, it has still been a difficult adjustment to make.
But the best way to overcome adversity is to look for the new opportunities it presents – and that is what everyone at Melbourne Chamber Orchestra is trying to do. For me, it has been an opportunity to explore new technology options so I can continue teaching my wonderful double bass students remotely. I am so inspired by their dedication and passion for music during these challenging times.
I now have unlimited time to practice and learn new repertoire, to read, and to watch the full six episodes of Pride and Prejudice. (Normally, I only have time to skip to episode four where Darcy jumps in the lake.) I am even trying to improve my cooking skills – although an entire year in isolation may not be enough to cure that deficiency!
But I also took this time to catch up with some of my MCO colleagues to ask them how they have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they are planning to use their newly imposed downtime. From gardening and learning a language, to the obvious practice opportunity, they are all finding positive ways to embrace this time at home – and they might give you some inspiration to do the same!

Golf is gone, but not before I did manage a 42 off the stick on the first nine of Yarra Bend the other week – just before all courses were shut. My best 9 holes there in 20 years, and second best ever!

But cycling remains, so I still don’t have an excuse to avoid fitness matters. And no matter how fast I ride with my wife Katharine, she is always determined to go faster, which I guess is good for both of us!

Melbourne really is remarkable for its ever-increasing bike paths – increasing in both numbers and quality. There’s nothing unusual about riding 20 kilometres without crossing over a road or having to negotiate a single traffic light.
Home life is always going to be at full throttle, especially with our three teenagers, all of whom are having cabin fever issues – perfectly understandable, of course. The main rule for the house is that we all have to be extra nice to each other at this time, and most days we’ve come closish to this ideal, which is not a bad effort, I think.

My students are all now online, which is a first for me. But I’m delighted about how effective this medium can be. Most of my students are particularly focused at the moment, understanding the possibility that this is the year when they really do have the chance to get seriously good. This will take a lot of discipline, of course, as well as the imagination to see that this extraordinary moment in our lives does in fact have a next chapter.

My favourite story for my students at the moment is of an Australian violinist I once met in Canada who flew nightly bombing raids over Germany throughout the Second World War – and came home each day to do two hours of violin practice! (These men had about a 20-day life expectancy!) Post-war, he was immediately one of London’s leading players and then had a long, remarkably distinguished career as a performer and teacher in the United Kingdom and North America.

This is also a time of great investigation of my own playing. The great French pianist Alfred Cortot taught that ‘piano playing is either easy or impossible’. I have assumed that it’s ditto for the violin, and have come to know of no higher nor more useful pedagogical consideration than this.

To my ever-increasing delight, I am spending focused days working out easy solutions for what I have previously understood was impossible for me. This is also very good for my students. This excitement goes hand in hand with – for the first time in my 14 years as artistic director of Melbourne Chamber Orchestra – the opportunity to get ahead on MCO programs. Much of the repertoire we have planned for 2020 is new for me – repertoire we’ll no doubt get to, sooner or later.

My time has also been spent in preparing for the worldwide release on April 10 of Douglas Weiland’s fourth and fifth string quartets on the Naxos label. This recording is by the Melbourne Quartet, which comprises three MCO players – Markiyan Melnychenko, Michael Dahlenburg, and myself – as well as my lifelong beloved colleague: violist, composer, and arranger Keith Crellin.

There’s also been the time to finish Hilary Mantel’s magnificent trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, an acknowledged major work of historical fiction. It would appear that the Reformation was every bit as tumultuous as the very days in which we now find ourselves, probably even more so!

All in all, while there is no hiding the devastating catastrophe we are all part of, I think these are also times of unique opportunity for re-evaluation, exploration, and development.