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Many of us sing in community choirs. Or we know someone who sings in one. Community choirs are growing all over Australia. A report (Advocacy Resources Research, December 2013) suggests that most have been running for less than ten years with a gradual increase in participation with increased age, 45-54 year-olds being most likely to sing in a choir. Only 30% of choir members are males; the number of choirs where singers must be able to read music is 8%; in 57% reading is useful but not required and in 36% singers don’t need to be able to read at all. Here is the story of one such choir, typical of many and yet different.
Turn your thoughts to Sydney’s Northern Beaches and what images spring to mind? Sand and sun, surfies, lifesavers and sports clubs. But there is another side: For over 40 years some 80 people gather every Thursday evening in a local school hall to rehearse their next concert. They are the members of the Manly Warringah Choir, passionate about classical music, devoted to the choral repertoire and keen to spread the pleasure and benefits of music within and beyond its area.
Benefits? Yes. We all know how good it feels to sing. Over the years studies have demonstrated the physiological and psychological benefits of music and community singing in particular. For Manly Warringah Choir these confirm what they know: the ability to put the outside world aside for a period each week, to concentrate on learning something new and challenging, to socialise and to give and receive support, create a palpable sense of well-being and stamina.
As a community organisation, the Choir works entirely on self-discipline. There are no auditions, and while being able to hold a tune is a prerequisite, it all works on trust. Everyone is welcome; nobody is tested. Consequently the range of abilities is wide: some can look at a score and start singing. Others cannot read music and learn by listening (and piggybacking on those that can!). People show up on time, rarely miss rehearsals, the mobile phones are silent, no one is late. And it works. The Choir has loyal audiences and sings to packed houses.
The singers are devoted to Moscow and Berlin-trained musical director Dr Carlos Alvarado. Under his baton and inspiration the Choir performs at the elegant, historic Cardinal Cerretti Chapel in Manly. Recent concerts include Bach’s St. John Passion, Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Cantata, Mozart’s Great C Minor Mass, Haydn’s Paukenmesse, Fauré’s Requiem and, of course, Handel’s Messiah is a regular favourite. The Choir prides itself on the opportunities it provides for young singers. Several Conservatorium students have accompanied the Choir as soloists and are now making their mark in European centres.
In the spirit of multicultural Australia, the Choir is keen to promote the cross-boundaries aspects of music. With a Colombian conductor and members from several countries it has sung in French, German, Italian, Russian and Hebrew. The Choir teamed up recently with the visiting Odawara Doctors Choir from Japan and sang in English, Japanese and Latin. It recently performed at the Sydney Conservatorium to support the doctorate project of a Spanish student focusing on the works of Granados.
But the biggest challenge is ahead.Distinguished Concerts International New York has invited the Choir to take part in a community choir concert in Carnegie Hall next May. And the repertoire? Brahms’ German Requiem – one of choral music’s pinnacles.
Before that there is another challenge. The Choir is now preparing to perform Karl Jenkins’ Stella Natalis for its Christmas concert. Jenkins (of The Armed Man fame), is the world’s most frequently played contemporary choral composer. Stella Natalis, though less well known, is a delight. It ranges from gentle, lullaby-style songs to quirky, dynamic passages and from traditional, predictable harmonies to unfamiliar tunes. Rhythms vary constantly to keep singers and audiences on their toes. And what a delight to sing for once the work of a living composer!
The choir performs at Cardinal Cerretti Chapel, Manly on December 3 and 4. Visit manlywarringahchoir.org.au or phone (02) 9953 2443 or 0432 656 798