In 1920, Sydney was a different place. Yet the bones of the emerging city had been laid. The Great War was over, and the chaos caused by returning soldiers bringing the pneumonic flu across through shipping ports and train stations had faded. Closed venues and compulsory mask mandates – measures the government put in place to combat the deadly pandemic – were finally lifted.

Sydney Philharmonia ChoirsSydney Philharmonia Choirs. Photo © Keith Saunders

It was against this backdrop that a group of 19 singers from Sydney’s Inner West churches gave their first performance on September 9, 1920 at Randwick Hospital, now called Prince of Wales. Choirs bind people together, and the Hurlstone Park Choral Society kept on meeting year after year. In the 30s and 40s, against the backdrop of depression and war, their numbers grew and they finally become the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs of today.

A century ago, Sydney would’ve been without its most recognisable landmarks: The Harbour Bridge was built in 1923 and the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973. At a more fundamental level, it had yet to acquire the multi-cultural diversity which is the hallmark of today’s society. It’s this diversity that artistic director Brett Weymark envisioned for Sydney Philharmonia Choir’s centennial celebration: Time and Place.

Set to live stream via Facebook on Wednesday September 9 at 7.30pm, the 45-minute presentation, Time and Place | Celebrating 100 Years, will include the world premiere of a newly commissioned work from acclaimed Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin AO, Human Waves. The video will open with the digital premiere of an extract from Deborah Cheetham AO’s Tarimi Nulay: Long Time Living Here, sung in the Gadigal language of Sydney’s first peoples. A choral Acknowledgment of Country, featuring words by Matthew Doyle, the piece was commissioned to open all of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ concerts in 2020.

Human Waves was an idea I had around trying to explore the stories of those who had arrived on our shores post 1788, bringing their stories, culture and traditions and enriching the fabric of society for everyone,” Weymark explains. “These are narratives that are rarely touched on in any art form let alone choral music.”

Elena Kats-CherninElena Kats-Chernin. Photo © Bruria Hammer

In 1975, a young woman named Elena Kats-Chernin touched down in Sydney for the first time. She grew up in Russia, which at that time was a country of oppression where even food was being rationed. “I couldn’t believe the colour of the sky here, the blueness of it. People were so friendly, and everyone was not stressed out. Sydney at that time had a much slower pace,” says Kats-Chernin.

For Human Waves, Kats-Chernin worked collaboratively with librettist, concert pianist, and long-time four-hand partner Tamara-Anna Cislowska. Together they explored the stories of real-life migrants from different cultural backgrounds, their first impressions of Australia, and unique experiences of our community.

Born in Australia, Cislowska is drawn to how people who migrate here as children or adults fall in love with this country. Kats-Chernin exemplifies this experience: “Being quite young, I felt very vulnerable and very impressionable. I was excited by everything, I wanted to make friends and I wanted to learn as much English as quickly as I can. I was very lucky. I went straight to the Sydney Conservatorium, where I was able to meet like-minded friends and learn English in a very accelerated way.”

During the months of collaboration, Cislowska would workshop by telling Kats-Chernin stories. “I’d see if it made her laugh, or if it would put her in a thoughtful mood. Out of hundreds, I narrowed it down to 20, and there are nine stories that make it to a roughly 30-minutes long work,” she says.

Lately, Cislowska has turned to working with words more than preparing for her performances and tours as a concert pianist. “Telling a story on this size with the amount of time we have, I have to make every line count. In Human Waves, all the words have to be so meaningful,” she says.

“We worked for many months on each movement: creating the orchestral colours, rhythms and textures needed to capture each story, and the characters’ emotions,” Kats-Chernin reflects.

Cislowska thought her involvement was done after the draft had been finalised. She was looking forward to attending the premiere in Sydney Town Hall in June. But the pandemic added another twist to this story.

When Australia went into lockdown as the result of COVID-19 in March, it was clear that a work scored for a large choir and orchestra couldn’t be performed for some time. Planning turned to the creation of a digital experience. Facing the creative and technical limitations brought by the coronavirus, TEN ALPHAS Co-Founder and Creative Director Jess Milne set to work alongside Brett Weymark on an adapted scenario.

In July, Weymark, Kats-Chernin and Cislowska, along with percussionist Jess Ciampa and some members of the choir, went into the studio and recorded a master track of Human Waves. In lieu of an orchestra, the long-time collaborators performed four-hands piano. Physical distancing meant they couldn’t play on the same instrument. A second piano had to be brought into the studio. Luckily, Weymark had just the grand instrument for it.

Then, an invitation was sent. Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ singers, along with past performers, were invited to be part of the world premiere Human Waves digital performance. Incredibly, 212 signed up, including singers in the US, London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Finland, Switzerland, Greece and Beijing.

The coronavirus pandemic has made the production of Human Waves a global rather than a local affair – and there is a symmetry in finding that after their time with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the human waves radiate back to other places across the world.

Weeks of Zoom rehearsals followed and in the same month, in studios, living rooms and bedrooms around the world, 212 choristers filmed themselves singing. Seven hundred and forty-one selfie videos were submitted for inclusion in the final sound mix and video presentation.

“I am incredibly proud that, even in the midst of a pandemic, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs has produced something of real lasting joy not only honours our 100 years of music making but also shows us adapting to change and embracing whatever it takes to share passion with an audience,” Weymark says. “Human Waves is an overwhelmingly positive piece, in a time when we are all looking for some light on the horizon.”

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ Time and Place | Celebrating 100 Years streams online on September 9 at 7:30pm via Facebook

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