A na­tion’s life sto­ries, go­ing for a

The rise of com­mu­nity choirs un­der­scores how mu­sic is a pow­er­ful form of so­cial cap­i­tal, writes Jane Fraser

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

AS it is in Heaven , de­scribed by crit­ics as the best thing to come out of Swe­den since ABBA, is the film that sank Ti­tanic ; not, per­haps, in terms of box- of­fice tak­ings but be­cause it is the long­est run­ning film screened in Aus­tralia, now sneak­ing into its sec­ond year.

It also ran for more than a year in New Zealand and has good word- of- mouth au­di­ences in Swe­den, Ger­many, The Nether­lands and South Africa.

This is a tale of re­demp­tion, of a man, an in­ter­na­tion­ally well- re­garded or­ches­tral con­duc­tor, hag- rid­den by a child­hood of bul­ly­ing and weighed down by a con­gen­i­tal heart con­di­tion. He re­turns to his birth­place, re­luc­tantly agrees to help out with the lo­cal choir and re­dis­cov­ers a lost joy for mu­sic.

The longevity of the film ( al­beit in lim­ited re­lease) be­lies the tru­ism that Aus­tralians, in com­mon with other West­ern so­ci­eties that en­joy wealth, have lost their sense of com­mu­nity.

On the con­trary, the rise of com­mu­nity- based choirs — some re­sem­bling the troupe in As it is in Heaven — demon­strates how mu­sic can be a kind of so­cial cap­i­tal, help­ing to re­claim the idea of com­mu­nity in­volve­ment; of mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion by help­ing oth­ers to help them­selves. To­day in Aus­tralia, choirs in which a beau­ti­ful or even good­ish voice is a bonus rather than a pre­req­ui­site are flour­ish­ing. From en­sem­bles for the home­less and chil­dren to rugby singers, choirs are fast be­com­ing the har­monic equiv­a­lent of that other com­mu­nity- based cul­tural phe­nom­e­non, the book club.

Opera star Jonathon Welch has be­come na­tion­ally recog­nised as bring­ing suc­cour to a host of the home­less, dis­ad­van­taged, un­der­e­d­u­cated and marginalised by form­ing the Choir of Hard Knocks. It was put on the map by ABC Ra­dio Na­tional’s Break­fast an­nouncer Fran Kelly and per­formed to sell- out crowds at Melbourne’s Town Hall and Vo­da­phone Sta­dium, and at the Syd­ney Opera House.

The ABC ran a high- rat­ing television se­ries about the prepa­ra­tion for the Syd­ney per­for­mance with all its ac­com­pa­ny­ing dra­mas: drug ad­dic­tion, in­abil­i­ties to com­mit, drunken be­hav­iour in­volv­ing two per­form­ers be­ing sent back to Melbourne in dis­grace and, even­tu­ally, the glim­mer of re­demp­tion.

‘‘ There’s a uni­ver­sal mes­sage,’’ Welch says. ‘‘ If you have a past where you have never been ap­plauded, hav­ing peo­ple give you a stand­ing ova­tion is the great­est thing ( that) can hap­pen.’’

Through­out the re­hearsals and the sham­bolic trek north, the mud­dled- up ac­com­mo­da­tion, the child- like tantrums, Welch dis­played an al­most mirac­u­lous re­solve not to al­low any­thing to stand in his way of mov­ing be­yond the of­ten re­cal­ci­trant, of­ten drunk, of­ten abu­sive and self­abu­sive be­hav­iour of his cast.

The ac­claimed opera star is, how­ever, in­sou­ciant about his com­mit­ment to the un­der­privi- leged, play­ing down what is of­ten a Sisyphean task. ‘‘ The for­ma­tion of Hard Knocks has given me the op­por­tu­nity to use the mu­si­cal gifts with which I have been blessed.’’ Th­ese, he says, en­able him to give a sense of self- es­teem, pur­pose, struc­ture and re­spect to those who sit in the gloomy streets of poverty and ne­glect. It also gives the pub­lic some idea of what it is like to be one of the marginalised mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

‘‘ It gives them ( the choir) a fam­ily, al­beit a mu­si­cal one.’’

Aus­tralia has a rich tra­di­tion of cho­ris­ters. The St Mary’s Cathe­dral Choir is the old­est mu­si­cal in­sti­tu­tion in Aus­tralia; it was formed in 1818 to sing ves­pers in the house­hold of James Dempsey, the cen­tre of Catholic wor­ship in Syd­ney dur­ing its early days as a pe­nal colony. It is now a 40- strong litur­gi­cal choir for male voices, boy tre­bles and adult men. Many of the boys are on schol­ar­ship at St Mary’s Col­lege.

The Syd­ney Youth Choir has at­tracted in­ter­na­tional ac­claim, as do many Aus­tralian groups that, through the gen­eros­ity of bene­fac­tors, take their tal­ent abroad.

Choirs from over­seas visit Aus­tralia reg­u­larly and th­ese days there is a choir through­out the coun­try for ev­ery­one. The Aus­tralian Welsh Male Choir in Vic­to­ria, for ex­am­ple, has its ori­gins in the coalmines of South Wales, fer­tile ground for re­cruits. In Wales, ev­ery val­ley could boast a male choir, many gain­ing world renown. With the demise of min­ing, many choirs strug­gled to get new young mem­bers, but the tra­di­tion lives on, no more so than where ex­pats have set­tled. What bet­ter fer­vour hwyl’’ than to

hear the massed voices of the Welsh at Cardiff Arms Park singing the na­tional an­them?

Not to be out­done, Aus­tralia has a rugby choir, based in Can­berra. Its claim to fame is singing dur­ing the ACT Brumbies’ Su­per 14 matches. It belts out Welsh hymns, opera, rugby songs, Christ­mas carols, as well as pop, com­edy and — heaven for­bid — nov­elty songs. Mem­bers wear a uni­form: taupe trousers and a gold Brumbies tie.

This month Paul Dyer, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Bran­den­burg Orches­tra, is wear­ing a dif­fer­ent hat; or, in fact, two hats. Be­tween act­ing as choir mas­ter at the an­nual Christ­mas carol con­certs, held in Syd­ney’s Martin Place and in var­i­ous sub­ur­ban churches, he’s do­ing a bit of singing him­self.

St Francis of As­sisi Church in Syd­ney’s Padding­ton hosts the carols — it counts Joan Cardin among its choir mem­bers — and it is also where Dyer spends his spare time singing. The Bran­den­burg choir, he ex­plains, com­prises elite singers, most of whom have been schooled at the Con­ser­va­to­rium of Mu­sic or come from a back­ground of mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion. Th­ese are trained singers, able to read old no­ta­tion.

Dyer de­scribes com­mu­nal sing- ins as a tribal in­stinct. ‘‘ At St Francis things are com­pletely dif­fer­ent; the choir is an eclec­tic group of peo­ple. There are lawyers and sur­geons and grand­moth­ers, and they’re like an ex­tended fam­ily, a small com­mu­nity. We had our Christ­mas party re­cently and it was won­der­ful. The other thing is when, on a Sun­day you walk down the aisle at the end of the ser­vice, the ex­pres­sions on the con­gre­ga­tion’s faces makes you feel spe­cial.’’

Now a na­tional search is on for the new kid on the block. There is to be a World Youth Day Choir, 300 strong, that will par­tic­i­pate in the event, with masses cel­e­brated by the Pope, Bene­dict XVI, and Catholic Arch­bishop of Syd­ney, Ge­orge Pell.

The cho­ris­ters, aged 16 to 35, will be se­lected from cathe­dral choirs, parish choirs, and Catholic high schools, col­leges and univer­si­ties. The mu­sic has been com­mis­sioned by Ge­orge Palmer, the NSW Supreme Court judge. The fi­nal mass will com­prise the 300 cho­ris­ters, the Aus­tralian Youth Orches­tra, so­prano Amelia Far­ru­gia and tenor Andrew Good­win.

Ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Frank­furt, singing boosts the im­mune sys­tem and im­proves the per­form­ers’ mood. It cer­tainly has helped Ge­of­frey Hooper, also known as Elvis, who sings in the Syd­ney Street Choir. This choir’s web­site is re­plete with per­sonal ac­counts of re­demp­tion, men­tal and spir­i­tual. Home­less at age four, Hooper spent his child­hood in and out of in­sti­tu­tions. He gam­bled and drank and could see noth­ing that would rid him of his woes. Now in his 40s, he is one of the choir’s core mem­bers thanks to an en­counter with the leader of the Syd­ney Street Choir, Peter Lehner, and also en­joys karaoke in his spare time. He loves see­ing the smiles on au­di­ences’ faces and says that for the first time in his life he holds hope for the fu­ture: ‘‘ I want to make some­thing of my life.’’

Early in 2008 this choir will mark its sixth year with a na­tional tour and, come hell or high wa­ter, Hooper will be part of it. ‘‘ It’s more than the mu­sic, it’s that feel­ing of be­long­ing, of feel­ing ev­ery now and then as though you live a nor­mal life, that you may have been re­jected by your fam­ily, but you have found an­other one.’’

Paula Shaw is a cho­ris­ter. Hers is a small group of singers, the Stam­pad­owns, that meets to sing mainly gospel and African mu­sic; mem­bers have been go­ing for two years and meet once a week. What draws her to sing in a group? ‘‘ You can make a sound you can’t make by your­self,’’ she says. Her con­tri­bu­tion to those who strug­gle to find a voice is singing with the street choir at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. It’s early days, but it is quite ev­i­dently a start.

Com­mu­nity spirit may have dis­ap­peared or been ne­glected but, among the na­tion’s grow­ing co­hort of cho­ris­ters, it’s on its way back.

Song on high: St Francis of As­sisi church choir

Pic­ture: Jane Demp­ster

Singing on the bot­tom line: The Syd­ney Street Choir per­forms carols in Vic­to­ria Park

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