Calling everyone who has missed singing with their community choir because of the COVID-19 shutdowns, or who loves Christmas carols, or who simply wants to join in a big, festive singalong.

At the end of a long, challenging year when the coronavirus pandemic has kept many families and loved ones apart, ABC Classic has just launched a project called the Classic Choir to bring Australians together through song, and celebrate Christmas.

In-demand composer, Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham has written a new carol called Christmas With You, which captures a festive mood of hope, comfort and joy, while Wadawurrung artist Deanne Gilson has painted a new artwork, Nyirram turt-barram (The Morning Star Story), to illustrate the themes Cheetham has addressed.

Nyirram turt-barram (The Morning Star Story) by Deanne Gilson

The carol will be rehearsed during several live online sessions during November, under conductor Ben Northey, and participants must then submit a recording by 27 November. Hopefully thousands of Australians will raise their voices and take part. Christmas With You will then be released to the world on 15 December.

In an interview for the ABC, Cheetham said she received a phone call from ABC Classic Manager Toby Chadd asking if she would write a Christmas carol to share with Australia, deep into Melbourne’s second period of lockdown.

“I did not have to think about it… In trying to make sense of a year of loss and separation felt around the world I needed to respond and this carol was my chance. It came as a single thread of consciousness, my thoughts moving too fast for my pencil on the page and fingers at the piano. The longing I am sure we have all felt at some time this year. Wishing to be with those we love, when the choice was not ours to make,” she said.

“I do not apologise for the nostalgic style of this carol. There is longing, yes, but there is also hope. For me, hope is ultimately the message and meaning of Christmas.”

Speaking to Limelight, ABC Classic presenter Russell Torrance – who is an ambassador for the Classic Choir – explains how the idea came about.

“A few of us here at ABC Classic felt that we really needed to do something special this Christmas, after such a strange and difficult year. We’ve been inspired during 2020 by the many ways that people have adapted music-making to the online world. But we felt that we could take this idea and make it bigger than ever – a truly national choir that everyone could take part in, and that would make us feel connected to those we love, even if we can’t be with them physically.”

Deborah Cheetham. Photograph © Frank Farrugia

Asked why Cheetham was chosen, Torrance says: “We’re so lucky at ABC Classic to have strong connections to so many Australian composers, all of whom could have written a fantastic Christmas carol for us. But there’s just something so powerful and direct about Deborah Cheetham’s music. And if you’re looking for something truly Australian, who better to enlist than one of our most accomplished First Nations composers? We knew that she would give us something that would welcome singers of all levels of ability, but that would also be memorable and affecting. A powerful way to round out this year. And she most certainly did not disappoint! It also turns out that Deborah loves all things Christmas – so [it was] the perfect fit!”

ABC Classic gave Cheetham plenty of room to move. “We simply asked Deborah to write a new carol that spoke to all Australians, and addressed the year we’ve all endured with something wonderful and uplifting,” says Torrance.

“It also had to be something that anyone could easily sing along to. And that’s it – the rest is Deborah’s unique sense of how to write music that truly unites people.”

Torrance first saw the sheet music about a month before the launch of Classic Choir this week, and felt emotional as soon as he looked at it. “We were filming the launch video and we had printouts of the music to use as props, but I was curious to have a closer look. All I had to do was look at the opening line, and tears started to well up: ‘Will you find your way home Christmas night? There is a star to guide you…’ I thought about my family in the UK, how much I’ll miss them this Christmas – but how, even at first glance, Deborah’s words helped me. I also realised I couldn’t wait to let everyone Australia hear those words and – well it sounds cheesy – be healed,” he says.

“The carol was recorded for us by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Chamber Singers. I first heard the mix about a week before we launched Classic Choir. It’s just spot on – I can’t imagine it being a better fit for the vision we had. I still can’t hear the music without crying.”

Benjamin Northey will conduct the online rehearsals which will take place through November.

“Ben is such a great friend of ABC Classic – we’ve always loved playing his performances and interviewing him for live events. But that relationship has grown this year. For the Classic 100 Beethoven he gave Australia conducting lessons on the ABC Classic website. He’s also a regular guest with me on Classic Breakfast. And it goes without saying that he’s such a fine musician. I know he’s really looking forward to conducting our live online rehearsals, and bringing the final performance together.”

Asked if he will be taking part, Torrance laughs. “Absolutely! I joined up before anyone else! This project is about bringing a sense of togetherness to a community still so separate at the end of 2020. So I thought of my Mum and Dad in London and roped them into joining too. So we’ll feel together in music, even if we can’t be round the piano this Christmas.”

The music for Christmas With You is available at ABC Classic online. Online rehearsals will take place on 18, 19, 23 & 24 November at 5pm. Recordings must be submitted by 27 November, and the carol will be launched on 15 December.

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