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