Sydney’s City Recital Hall celebrated its 20th birthday in style yesterday, with the party starting bright and early with a flash mob choir led by Anthony Pasquill and Jess Ciampa, including a live cross to Seven’s Sunrise program for a rendition of Kool & The Gang’s classic Celebration.

With celebrations stretching across the day, the morning saw the venue in Angel Place opened up for tours, while the afternoon featured a presentation by City Recital Hall architect Andrew Andersons.

Megan Washington. Photo © Asaf Luft

Lunchtime saw period instrument ensemble Bach Akademie Australia make their City Recital Hall debut (though Artistic Director Madeleine Easton recalled taking part in the building’s acoustic testing prior to its opening in 1999) with an all-Bach concert in the ground floor lobby. Joined by soprano Anna Sandstrom, tenor Richard Butler and baroque flautist Jessica Lee, the ensemble performed excerpts from cantatas, the B Minor Mass and the Brandenburg Concertos, with Neal Peres Da Costa unleashing a storm of notes from the harpsichord in the fiendish solo in the first movement of Concerto No 5. They rounded out the set with the first fugue from The Art of Fugue – played here on strings – and Sandstrom singing the aria Heute noch, lieber Vater from the comic Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be still, stop chattering) – also known as the Coffee Cantata.

Luke Howard, Topology and Megan Washington. Photo © Asaf Luft

The evening was given over to an event billed as a “classical-crossover” concert – though that perhaps doesn’t quite do justice to the wide-ranging styles embraced – curated by singer-songwriter Megan Washington. Washington sung several of her own numbers – the poignant Public Pool, Catherine Wheel, and a brand new song Lazarus Drug – backed by Brisbane new music outfit Topology (last seen at the venue for the inaugural Extended Play festival) and pianist and composer Luke Howard, who did many of the arrangements. Howard’s own ambient post-minimalist compositions (August and Unity Peach) threaded through the program, while Topology performed several numbers including the group’s saxophonist and composer John Babbage’s Generations – a jazz-infused piece built around the letters of the names of his family members – and bassist and composer Robert Davidson’s bright, rhythmic Scattered Light. Davidson is perhaps best known for his multimedia ‘voice portraits’, videos of famous speeches – such as Julia Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’ and others that feature in his recent Stalin’s Piano – incorporated into musical compositions that feed off the rhythm and pitch of the speeches themselves. The second premiere on the program was Davidson’s latest voice portrait, setting Greta Thurnburg’s speech to the United Nations Climate Action Summit. While his Gillard setting sparks and moves with her inflections, here the music was almost a lament, allowing Thurnburg’s searing indictment to speak for itself – coloured on certain words by Washington’s vocals – before erupting when Thurnburg reaches the line: “The young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”

The concert was bookended by electronic music duo Electric Fields – in an ‘unplugged’ setting here with Michael Ross on piano – and the powerful vocals and charismatic stage presence of Zaachariaha Fielding, singing in Pitjantjatjara and English.

From flash mob choir to HIP Bach and genre-blending new music acts, the day offered a taste of what City Recital Hall has evolved into over its 20-year history, and particularly since taking on a curatorial role under CEO Elaine Chia. On Chia’s watch, the venue has increased its programming 20 percent over the last three years – in addition to hosting the likes of Musica Viva Australia, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Pinchgut Opera and Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – attracting new audiences. This will no doubt continue as the venue moves into its next decade – especially given the City of Sydney’s birthday present: $4.2 million in funding over the next six financial years.