Sydney’s newest symphonic choir, River City Voices, officially launched at the end of last year. Based in Parramatta, the choir swings into action with an inaugural community Come & Sing weekend choral workshop in May, culminating in a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with soloists, soprano Ayşe Göknur Shanal, baritone Simon Lobelson, tenor Warren Fisher, the Senior Chorale from Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta, and a percussion and piano ensemble, all led by the choir’s Artistic Director and Chief Conductor, Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith.

Sarah Penicka-Smith, River City VoicesDr Sarah Penicka-Smith. Photo © Karen Almond

Carmina Burana is just the beginning, however. The choir’s founder and General Manager Inara Molinari wants to see River City Voices become the flagship choral organisation for Western Sydney and last 100 years like the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, who celebrate their centenary in 2020.

“I want it to be an organisation of integrity that flourishes through its relevance, vibrancy and reputation,” Molinari tells Limelight. “One that singers and musicians clamour to join, and one that’s valued and supported by the community as being an integral and essential part of their cultural life.”

For the choir’s first Artistic Director, Penicka-Smith – who has worked with choirs across Sydney and who became the fourth Australian conductor selected for the prestigious Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors at The Dallas Opera last year – it’s important for Western Sydney to have its own symphonic choir. “Every part of Greater Sydney should have access to all forms and levels of musical expression,” she says. “Residents of Western Sydney may have noticed a tendency to stereotype them as not being invested in classical music, and it’s simply not true.”

Molinari moved to Western Sydney from North Sydney ten years ago. “I have grown to love Parramatta – its heritage, its diversity, its genuine sense of community and its distinctive artistic talent,” she says.

She saw in the booming city a growing hunger for different kinds of artistic experiences, and a place for a new not-for-profit choral organisation. “Residents now want big artistic events and home grown, professional cultural organisations closer to home,” she says. “As a local ‘activist’ and former Opera Australia chorister and independent producer, I was keenly aware that Parramatta had no recital hall, no symphony orchestra and no symphonic choir. I wanted to address this gap in cultural infrastructure, as it didn’t seem to match Parramatta’s ambitions as the ‘Central City’.”

A week after she decided to start a major choir for Parramatta, Create NSW released three Western Sydney-specific grants to assist local arts organisations. “Talk about fast forward my choir development plans,” she says. “I received a grant and the choir is now on an exciting trajectory!”

While Molinari admits to being unsure, initially, as to whether such an organisation was wanted in Parramatta, her fears were quickly put to rest. “From the moment I started talking to local arts, cultural and government organisations and directors of community choirs across Western Sydney, about forming a choir that bridged community and professional levels, the overwhelming response I received was, ‘It’s about time!’” she says. “Before the choir even had its first rehearsal in February, I had received requests for River City Voices to perform at two major government Australia Day events, and the requests keep coming! What really strikes a chord with locals is that the choir is home grown and reflects the West’s diversity and uniqueness – River City Voices is not just a transplanted organisation from the Sydney CBD!”

Far from competition, Molinari sees River City Voices as a collaborative partner with Western Sydney’s existing choirs. “When I reached out to over 60 community choirs across Western Sydney, I stressed that this choir hopes to be an organisation that can not only perform and share resources and expertise with existing choirs, but offer professional employment and mentoring opportunities, as well as capacity building activities for local musicians, composers and singers,” she says.

Starting a new symphonic choir from scratch has not been without its challenges. “Raising awareness that we exist and recruiting choristers is itself a full-on task, let alone all the operational and program tasks involved with being an incorporated organisation,” Molinari says. “Sarah and I, together with our Board members and Advisory Committee, have worked hard to lay strong foundations for the choir but our biggest challenge remains – trying to build an equitable and sustainable organisation as quickly as possible so that we thrive beyond 2019.”

Things are looking positive, however, with River City Voices one of only 11 arts organisations in NSW to receive a Creative Partnerships Australia Plus1 matched funding grant. “This is an awesome opportunity for us to raise much-needed funds for 2020’s operational and artistic costs and to develop our supporter base,” Molinari says. “Above all though, I feel like the choir under Sarah’s direction has already taken on a life of its own well beyond me or my hopes and desires and that’s incredibly exciting and rewarding!”

With the choir’s first year of operation underway, the Penicka-Smith has big plans. “I want to give choristers the chance to tackle major choral works, as well as to create and participate in work that reflects the cultural diversity of the area,” she says. “We’re already doing both this year by hosting a Come and Sing: Carmina Burana in May, and performing new arrangements of music from Japanese anime films at the Auburn Botanic Gardens’ Cherry Blossom Festival. We’re building partnerships with local arts groups and councils to come up with an even more diverse program for 2020.”

While River City Voices is an auditioned choir, Molinari and Penicka-Smith want it to provide singing opportunities for the broader community as well. “A ‘Come and Sing’ allows our choristers to support developing singers from our local area, and it will also bring experienced singers from across Greater Sydney into the Parramatta CBD for a whole weekend of music-making with us,” she says.

As one of the biggest – and most famous – choral blockbusters ever written, Orff’s Carmina Burana is a perfect way to launch the choir’s season. “Even people who think they know nothing about classical music will know the opening chorus from countless films and ads,” Penicka-Smith says. “The concept of the piece is Fortune’s Wheel – that while you might be lucky one day, the wheel turns and tomorrow you’ll be at the bottom. Carl Off is brilliant at writing this idea into his music, which is full of catchy tunes that repeat, often getting faster each time. There are moments of lush seductiveness, describing a medieval summer of love, but overall it’s a work that speeds towards the finish line with power, a little fear, and a whole lot of reckless glory.”

Like Molinari, Penicka-Smith is full of ambition for the new choir – and for Parramatta. “I want to see River City Voices grow into a full symphonic choir that can sing anything we throw at it,” she says. “I want to see us performing with all the many choirs, orchestras, dance troupes, schools, theatres and cultural groups that thrive in our region, so that together we can take on major projects that a single company might not. And then I want to see us housed in a new Parramatta concert hall alongside a new symphony orchestra, maybe with a resident opera company as well. What do you think? Sound good?”

River City Voices’ Come and Sing: Carmina Burana takes place at Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta, on May 4 and 5. Registrations close April 5

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