With a program of great scope and vision, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs will ring in its 100th birthday in 2020. Central to the celebration of this significant milestone is the commissioning of 12 Australian composers as part of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ 100 Minutes of Australian Music initiative, which will see the Philharmonia perform at least one new work at every concert throughout the year. Comprising senior, early-career and Indigenous composers, the initiative is a serious, and welcome, commitment to new work and Australia’s developing musical landscape.
Brett Weymark. Photo © Keith Saunders
“I go back to the Emerald City play by David Williamson – if we’re not telling our own stories we always think life happens somewhere else, in a different accent,” says Artistic Director Brett Weymark. “The fact that we’ve got 100 minutes of new work in 2020, I would like every year to be like that.  should be 101 minutes of new music.”
The 12 composers commissioned by the Philharmonia are Brett Dean, Elena Kats-Chernin, Deborah Cheetham, Joseph Twist, Brooke Shelley, James Henry, Nardi Simpson, Will Yaxley, Matthew Orlovich, Daniel Brinsmead, Maria Lopes, and Andrew Anderson.
“It’s a terrific group of people we’re commissioning for 2020,” Weymark says. “It’s not the beginning or the end, it’s hopefully a continuing conversation as we get to understand the great culture that this country was founded on, in which singing and music was at the spiritual core in a sense.”
Deborah Cheetham. Photo © Kristina Kingston
As part of its attempt to engage meaningfully with Indigenous composers and culture, the Philharmonia has commissioned Deborah Cheetham to write an Acknowledgement of Country for the singers to perform before every concert.
“We’ve already started incorporating the Sydney Opera House one into performances so it’s not an afterthought, it’s not like being told to turn off your mobile phone,” says Weymark. “If we’re going to do it, it’s far more important than that. I just thought, we’re a choral organisation, we should be singing it. We should be acknowledging the Gadigal land we’re on and making more of an effort to learn that culture, so Deborah was absolutely the first choice to write a new one for us. And she was quite specific that she would write us something if there was enough recognition of Indigenous culture in the rest of the season and luckily, we were already moving in that direction.
“So every concert next year will start with it. It will be a piece that will hopefully have a flexible orchestration so we can do it a cappella, or we can do it with a baroque orchestra, and it will flow naturally into the next work. It’s not something perfunctory and the fact that the Philharmonia will have to learn it from memory means it will be part of their armoury.” Cheetham’s Tarimi nulay – Long time living here is written in collaboration with Indigenous musician Matthew Doyle, and will officially inaugurate the 2020 season on February 19. Hundreds of the Philharmonia’s members will gather on the steps of the Sydney Opera House for Dawn Chorus, a special, open air performance to usher in the new year. It’s also a tip of the hat to the venue, who acknowledged its long relationship with the Philharmonia by welcoming it as a resident company last month.
Weymark credits Dr Christopher Sainsbury and the Eora College with putting the Philharmonia in touch with composers Nardi Simpson and James Henry. “Engaging with Indigenous artists in a way that’s meaningful rather than tokenistic is something we’ve spent a great deal of time doing, and something we’ve researched thoroughly with the help of Chris and the Eora College to make sure we get right.”
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Photo © Keith Saunders
Securing Brett Dean was something of a coup for Weymark, who has worked with the composer on several of his major works like Socrates, Vexations and Devotions and his opera Hamlet.
“It did literally start as an around-the-water-cooler conversation at Glyndebourne,” he recalls. “I remember catching the train out with the specific mission of ‘I’m just going to ask Brett to write us a piece for our 100th’ because apart from Socrates, he hasn’t written a choral oratorio. More and more we started talking about Haydn’s Creation, which is one of his favourite pieces, and thinking about how there’s actually not a Darwinian response to it. So in a sense Brett’s piece is called “The Creation Oratorio”, the yin to Haydn’s yang, which we think will be amazing.”
It will receive its world premiere in Birmingham as part of the Philharmonia’s tour of the UK and Germany in October, alongside new works by Matthew Orlovich, Daniel Brinsmead and Will Yaxley.
Elena Kats-Chernin is another composer Weymark is thrilled to have engaged, her new work to be showcased in the Philharmonia’s special centenary celebration concert in June.
“The main centenary concert is about the three big archetypal stories of Sydney,” explains Weymark. “[One of them] is that huge, long history of Indigenous culture, which is continuing, not ended, and the other is the arrival of European culture 200 or so years ago. But the other big story is of course the extraordinary story of migration and immigration, and the only way to explore those three stories in one program was divide it into three parts.
Elena Kats-Chernin. Photo © Bruria Hammer
“So the first half of the program is acknowledging this new exchange that we have with Indigenous culture, then we go into what’s at the core of the Philharmonia repertoire which is dead white males but we’re doing it in hopefully a less than serious fashion. We’ve asked Dan Walker to come up with essentially a mash-up, to steal an expression from Glee, of the 10 pieces the Philharmonia has performed more than any other in its history… So Elena’s piece will talk to the immigration stories of Australia.”
Some of the other commissioned composers were selected by the Philharmonia members themselves, Weymark goes on to explain. Putting a call out for scores through the Australian Music Centre, the Philharmonia whittled the submissions down to just 20 compositions, which were vetted by its Chamber Singers over a series of reading nights.
“From that the Choir came up with a shortlist,” he says. “Each week there was a little poll on everybody’s mobile phone, and then we invited a small audience of donors and sponsors and members of the choir to a showing. Everybody then had to fill out a poll, but they weren’t allowed to know who the composers were. Out of that came people like Matthew Orlovich, who is well-known, but also people like Will Yaxley and Maria Lopes, who are members of the chorus. The fact that we started planning 100 Minutes a long time ago and also funding it a long time ago meant that the possibilities for how we went about connecting with composers was quite different.”
In February, the Philharmonia will give the Sydney premiere of Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shepard as part of Sydney Mardi Gras celebrations. The Grammy-nominated oratorio commemorates the 1998 anti-gay hate crime perpetrated against 21-year-old American student Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and left to die in a field.
“It’s a horrendous story that touched all of our lives,” says Weymark. “I remember putting it on and I must have been loading the dishwasher or something, and I was just transfixed by it. It’s not the most sophisticated music but it draws you in – it’s a bit of country and western, a bit of Hildegard, it’s Bach transmogrified in the first couple of bars.
“What excites me about it is that we are doing it with our youth choir so a lot of the singers are actually the age that Shepherd would have been, [which adds to] the fact this is a universal story that goes beyond the hate crime it was. It’s about how awful we can be to each other but hopefully some sort of change and social awareness comes out of that. It’s a really important piece that I’m quite surprised nobody else in Australia has touched.”
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, circa 1940s, in a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Sydney Town Hall. Photo supplied
With the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall undergoing major renovation for the next two years, the Philharmonia will return to the Town Hall for four of its major concerts in 2020. The first of these will be April’s St John Passion Reimagined, which will feature new pieces by Joseph Twist and Brooke Shelley that act as extra movements in Bach’s work.
“Bach was not writing in a bubble,” says Weymark. “But nowadays we perform it as a bit of a history piece, so we wanted to talk to these composers and ask them if there was now a missing voice? A female voice? Let’s actually have a comment from our time. It’s like what Simon Rattle did with the Planets a couple of years ago in Berlin, where he created a series of what he called satellite works. People who want to come and hear St John will still hear St John and it will be gloriously performed but there will be something extra to think about.”
Another season highlight for Weymark is November’s Transcendence, a concert in honour of the patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia. Using Lou Harrison’s Mass for St Cecilia as the jumping off point, which Weymark describes as akin to Gregorian chant with a “beautiful, meditative quality about it”, it’s paired with Paul Stanhope’s Lament to Saint Cecilia. Surrounding both works are pieces by Britten and Vaughan Williams, as well as new work by Maria Lopes and Andrew Anderson.
Earlier in the year, the Philharmonia’s 400-strong Festival Chorus will take to the Town Hall for Mendelssohn’s Elijah in May, with baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes taking on the title role. They’ll return to the Town Hall again for the annual ChorusOz program, this time for the Verdi Requiem. And as a joyous cap to a year of celebrations, the Philharmonia will take its beloved Christmas Carols event to Western Sydney, performing at the new, 2000-seat venue, the Sydney Coliseum.
“I hope audiences will come with us on the journey in 2020 because this is how I want the choir to look for the next 100 years,” says Weymark. “I want it to have a real sense of inclusion and that includes age as well as ability but also the great thing we need to be talking about is diversity and inclusiveness across different cultures as well.
“The way in which we commission music over the next hundred years will hopefully change a lot in a way that this program has demonstrated. More collaboration with the composers, choirs, seeking out new voices. At the end of the day, it’s a huge experiment with these composers – some have never written for a choir before. But out of that we might find something really refreshing and totally new and unexpected. So come with us on the journey.”