In October, the Sydney Chamber Choir presents Behold – the Sea!, a concert devised by leading choral conductor Jonathan Grieves-Smith, which takes audiences on a journey from maritime disaster to epic adventure and island magic. The program includes, among other pieces, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s requiem to the hundreds drowned in the 1994 sinking of the passenger ferry Estonia; Cecilia McDowall’s homage to Harriet Quimby, the first woman to fly across the English Channel; Peter Sculthorpe’s song tribute to James Cook’s voyage to follow the transit of Venus, The stars turn; Dan Walker’s piece about Alice Eather, the young Maningrida teacher and activist who took her life last year; and In paradisum by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. Here Grieves-Smith explains how and why he programmed the concert.

Jonathan Grieves-Smith. Photograph supplied

In the West’s hierarchical values, the depths of the seas are parallel to the great deserts, deserted places, places abandoned by God, man and fauna, places without life, without hope. And yet, these ‘empty’ places were where one might finally lose the frailty and limitation of mortal body and human discourse, and in doing so perceive, however partially, the simplicity and greatness of God.

Abandoning all trappings, isolated from comfort and conversation, the desert fathers, like John the Baptist and Jesus before them, abandoned life to find life. And, just as the depths are closer to hell, so are mountains and skies closer to God; freed from the earth we come close to God.

The search for meaning, for recognition of self, of understanding, is centred in the desperate Out of the deep have I called’ from Psalm 122, John the Baptist’s ‘voice crying in the wilderness’, ‘the still small voice’, and TS Eliot’s statement of the human round, the human journey:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

I have been fortunate to conduct the Sydney Chamber Choir on a number of occasions and it has always been a joy. This is a group of excellent people, excellent singers, with a proud history of exploring the great wild rivers and snow-capped mountains of the musical world, creating and introducing new music, wonderful collaborators, and true leaders of an exemplary kind to the Australian musical world.

When asked to conduct again this year I had been thinking of the sea, tales of disaster, success, romance and death, its allure to something instinctive in our psyche, the wild and untamed, our search for a god, the cry from somewhere deep inside to somewhere far beyond. This is very much reflected in two ancient settings of Psalm 122, ‘Out of the deep’, the Australian premiere of Nicolas Champion’s De profundis, long attributed to Josquin des Prez, and a setting to Gregorian chant that opens the concert and leads, in its chanting, to the telling of a very modern disaster.

On September 28, 1994, the passenger ferry Estonia was on a scheduled crossing from Tallinn to Stockholm. Due to poor cargo distribution it was listing, the weather was poor though not unusually so, but a succession of heavy waves, the springing of the ship’s bow door and consequent sudden influx of water exaggerated the list to starboard. The four engines cut out, and the ship quickly sank, stern first, in a depth of around 80 metres of water, with the loss of 852 lives. There were just 137 survivors. Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s Canticum calamitatis maritimae is both a profoundly moving requiem for the drowned, and a plaint for the families and survivors.

From the depths to the heights! The wonderful, celebrated English composer Cecilia McDowall, set delicious poems of flight by Sheila Bryer, to celebrate and acknowledge the 100th anniversary of a momentous flight. In her words: “The American aviatrix, Harriet Quimby, was the first woman to fly across the English Channel, flying the Louis Blériot route in reverse from Dover to Calais in 1912. Unlike Blériot, she did not crash-land her plane but negotiated the dark, early morning skies, descending in fog after 59 minutes. Quimby received little recognition for this remarkable feat as it was overshadowed by the shocking news of the sinking of the Titanic just the day before and this, understandably, dominated the news for weeks.” Two months later she died whilst taking part in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet.

Interspersed are smaller pieces by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, movements drawn from his wonderful collection of Strathclyde Motets, a region renowned for shipbuilding, and his utterly exquisite setting of Robert Burns’ The Gallant Weaver.

Here, too, is David Matthew’s arrangement of Peter Sculthorpe’s song The stars turn, a 50th birthday present for the great Australian composer. It is a setting of Tony Morphett’s poem which draws sky and sea together, laying them bare in the eternity of the vast round of space and suggesting “the man is saved who can bare his soul to the stars’ burn as the stars turn”.

And here too another wonderful Australian composer, Dan Walker, an outstanding singer, composer, and contributor to the Australian musical world, on his new piece, commissioned by Sydney Chamber Choir, through Ed and Jane Suttle, Ed a past President and present bass in the Sydney Chamber Choir. Their son worked closely with Alice Eather:

“Alice Eather was a unique and inspiring person; an incredible woman whose story resonates deep in the bedrock of this country. Alice’s mother was a Gunibidji woman from Maningrida in Arnhem Land; her father a direct descendent of a convict on the 1788 second fleet.”

Strong, intelligent, thoughtful, fearless, poetic and political, Alice was a teacher at the Maningrida school and fought for her mother’s country under threat from mining exploration. She lived her life between two worlds, which have never truly understood each other. In many ways, one world has never really made the attempt to understand the other; to use her words ‘A split life, split skin, split tongue, split kin’. Alice devoted an enormous amount of energy, love and activism in trying to inspire change and bring together these two cultures.

Alice also suffered chronic depression for close to ten years. In 2017 she quietly slipped away to the solitude of her home in the NT community of Maningrida and ended her life. She was 28 years old. The poem is titled Yúya Karrabúra (Fire is Burning). We’d like to share some of her words here so we can all keep the fire burning.

To complete the program, and perhaps bring it full circle, is the final movement of the requiem mass, In paradisum, set by outstanding Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. Perhaps, in this program’s context, it is a prayer and hope for the lives we considered at the beginning of the program, those who died in the sinking of the Estonia. Written in memory of the composer’s grandmother, it is certainly a confidence in her future, and the most exquisite benison for her, and for us, for an assured and peaceful ending to our journey from the depths to the stars.

Behold – the Sea! plays at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music on October 6 and at Church on the Mall, Wollongong, with the Wollongong vocal ensemble, con voci, on October 7. Enquiries: 1300 661 738


Jonathan Grieves-Smith is Artistic Director of professional choir Hallelujah Junction and of the Hamer Singers, and has led the MSO Chorus for 17 years