Choral Music in Melbourne
November 15, 2010
Melbourne could be called the city of choirs. It seems every week a new one is being formed.
With the inaugural National Melbourne Festival of Choirs set for 2011, we asked three choral heavyweights what they think about choirs and choral music in our city.
How do you regard the state and future of the Australian choral sector?
Dr Jonathon Welch AM: I think that choral singing has always been popular, particularly here in Victoria. Hopefully programs like ‘Choir of Hard Knocks’ have helped people not only realise the joy of singing in choirs but also the great health benefits and social inclusion they create. I also think that through programs like ‘Battle of The Choirs’, people have realised that the possible styles of music and presentation of choirs much broader than previously thought. With the broad spectrum of musical styles on offer – gospel, barbershop, a cappella, pop, rock and show choirs as well as traditional church and classical style choirs – there is a choir to suit everyone’s musical interests and tastes.
Andrew Wailes : On the one hand, I believe the standard of choirs in Australia, and particularly in Melbourne, is as good or even better than ever. This is as true for the large adult choirs as it is for the huge number of excellent children’s choirs that seems to have exploded in recent years. The exception seems to be church choirs, which sadly all seem to struggle for members, priority within worship, and funding for adequate leadership and organisation. Whilst for large community choirs, and non-school youth choirs, it might be harder to initially attract members, particularly men, I suspect the skill levels of people joining choirs today is actually better than in the past. The exception here is treble choirs, where boys’ voices are breaking much earlier than previously, and therefore trebles are perhaps developing less vocally than in times gone by before their voices change. The real challenge for traditional choirs I suspect, is to survive against the tidal wave of the sporting culture in this country, a media that is almost anti-traditional art-forms (such as choral music), and also to retain the standards of a rich choral tradition which is now under great pressure to adapt itself so radically to satisfy popular culture that it risks actually doing damage to itself.
There is great activity and many choirs are distinguished by their hard work and their conductor’s vision, rigour and skills. This is terrific, achievement does not come cheaply.
As in the UK, programming remains extremely conservative and this is a shame. Being bold doesn’t mean breaking the bank. There is so much good new music to perform and so many juxtapositions with old and familiar to excite. New music is not more difficult than old but it will appear so and sometimes be so as long as we don’t programme and perform it.
Two things for the future. Firstly, children should sing at school. They should sing quality music and they should be taught well. I’m not sure how to say this so I’ll just say it. There is so much second-rate, happy-clappy, lowest common denominator crap out there. Children should learn expressive, well-crafted texts and music. If they are not in touch with greatness we need never expect greatness from them.
Secondly, Australian audiences, composers, singers and conductors lack one vital strand, a strand present across Europe, and essential to a country with serious pretensions to music. We need an extraordinary professional vocal ensemble, a chamber choir comprising outstanding Australian singers to enthral audiences with live performances of 500 years of choral repertoire of a quality previously only heard in Australia from visiting choirs or on a CD. A group to allow Australia’s orchestras and promoters to present the most technically and aesthetically daunting music, old and new, with an assurance of excellence. A vocal ensemble to give inspiration and aspiration to (about-to-be) professional singers in the nation’s conservatoriums and to the choral sector, to provide composers with an instrument of sophistication and skill, a resource for choral conductors to learn. Watch this space!
How important is it for Australian choirs to perform new works and what role do they have in fostering original compositions and arrangements?
JW: The amazing impact that choirs like Australian Voices and Gondwanna Children’s Choir have had in presenting new works by Australian composers has really helped change the face and the sound of Australian choral repertoire around the world. It has also given Australia a unique voice in choral music I believe. In combination with the many wonderful arrangers and ensembles of international standing like “Idea of North”, I believe Australian choirs play a huge role in the ability and willingness to present fresh and exciting new sounds to the world. I think we don’t often realise how good our musicians, choirs and composers are here in this country and it’s our willingness to explore and be daring that gives Australian Choral music a wonderful freshness.
AW: I feel passionately that Australian choirs should regularly not only perform, but also commission, new works by local composers. Our composers need to work with choirs and understand their needs, and it is the responsibility of conductors such as myself to encourage them to provide us with new music of a high quality. There is more to Australian choral music than “I am Australian” and “I Still Call Australia Home”! We should be celebrating our history, our land, our people’s achievements, our unique flora and fauna, and our view of the world. I regularly commission and conduct new Australian works, and I believe the process of bringing new music to life is one that is cherished especially by choirs, who take ownership of pieces written for them. Local audiences also appreciate hearing new music. The more people who do it, the less “risky” it becomes, and the better the quality of literature will become as composers learn and develop. We should all remember that even Mozart in his own land was once a ‘new’ and a ‘local’ composer!!!
JG-S: Surely it is vital to the art-form, to us performers, to our audiences and, of course, to composers, both Australian and international. Music is a fire that must burn brightly with the intent of our commitment. Our duty is to pass on the music of the past as living, burning coals; we have a duty to replenish with fresh coals so that the fires of today will burn as brightly for us as for our children. And what joy to discover something new, to place it next to something old, and hear the crackle of flames!
What is the appeal of being in a choir?
JW: I think everyone becomes involved for a range of different and personal reasons, but at the core of his or her decision is a love of music and singing. For many, I know they want to explore their own talent and the amazing variety and complexity of the music that is on offer. For others it is the regular connection, sense of community and family that is often found in joining a choir. I also believe that everyone has a deep desire to continue the life long journey of learning and education through music, and choirs are a wonderful way to continue expanding our minds, friendships and experiences of the world at large. Singing is, for me, my best, most loyal and trusted friend, and one that I know is always there for me whatever my life situation might be. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities, teachers and talent I seem to have been given along the way. I can only recommend that each individual finds a choir that suits his or her tastes. So enjoy – music is given as a selfless gift for each person to experience and make life complete.
AW: Having spent many years as a chorister in all sorts of choirs myself prior to becoming a conductor, I can say with some authority that there are many positive aspects to being in a choir. There is the physical process of singing itself, which is a wonderful distraction from the stresses of daily life, no matter what age! It has been proven that choral musicians are less likely to suffer heart attack and stroke than non-singers! There is the wonderful effect of the music itself of course, which is far more powerful when you are a part of it. There is a stimulating educational aspect – history, literature, languages, musical theory and style are all learned as a part of choral singing. There is a feeling of teamwork, dedication, and the unique social aspect of being in a choir. Choirs are non-competitive, and they are usually welcoming of people of all backgrounds and cultures. Some choirs are lucky enough to perform with wonderful orchestras and soloists, so there is another performance benefit there, and touring is another fantastic aspect of being a part of a good choir. Everyone should try it!
J-GS: Great music, great people: making something extraordinary happen.
Dr Jonathon Welch AM: Founding Choir Director of Choir of Hope and Inspiration (formerly Choir of Hard Knocks) and THECHO!R, and creator of Social Inclusion Week Nov 20-28, 2010.
Andrew Wailes: Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir, as well as Artistic Director of The Australian Children’s Choir and Melbourne University Choral Society, the Choir of the Australian Catholic University, and the Box Hill Chorale.
Jonathan Grieves-Smith: Chorus Master of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus.
This 3MBS Feature Article originally appeared in OnAir November 2010