Many years ago Melbourne heard The Choir of Hard Knocks and immediately took it to its heart so that, recently, Hamer Hall was packed with faithful followers of director Jonathon Welch and his choirs for this Choir’s 10th anniversary concert. The history of the Choir is well known, but this was a time to remember its emergence and its popularity through the ABC series it starred in. Many of the original members of the choir are still part of it, and it was it exciting and gratifying to hear of their successes, while also welcoming new members to the stage.
As Welch said, “We made it!” There was great applause as the Choir filed on, a couple of singers in wheelchairs. The audience was disposed to love everything, and the arrival of Clarko brought the applause to fever pitch, so the choice of “Love is in the Air” was apt, lifted with the accompaniment of just piano, guitar and drums. Then came, “Don’t you know you’re alive?”, the clapping and foot-stamping in the Hall providing an emphatic answer to the question.
Indigenous opera singer Deborah Cheetham was a striking figure in her black gown, but seemed entirely comfortable on stage with the Choir of Hard Knocks. Her Welcome to Country, “Womin Jeka” was performed with a depth of feeling that set the tone for this concert. As Cheetham said, there had been songs in this place for more then 1000 generations, and this was a welcome back from a long journey. Clapping sticks and bird sounds enhanced the sense of history, but it was more recent history that was being celebrated on this night.
The solemn nature of the choir and its origin in homelessness was put aside for some time to allow for a bit of fun. And so we had the musical, My Fair Label, the story of a family that loses everything – but in this case with plenty of laughs, especially when Welch asked the audience to imagine he was Kate Ceberano! Welch sang with his characteristic resonance and clarity, and was followed by Danielle Matthews, pretty in red, charming the audience with ‘’God bless the Child”, to strong and enthusiastic support from the choir. Next came an acknowledgement of the choir “angels”, volunteers who support them in many ways, including their travels.
Typical of the evening were anecdotes, tributes and catch-ups with choir members we knew. A highlight was the appearance of Bruce Woodley, one of the original Seekers, with his song “I am Australian”. Given recent events its chorus of “I am, you are, we are Australian”, had a particular resonance, and yet was tinged with some regret (perhaps at our failure to truly live out this aspiration). Woodley’s own sincerity, however, was never in question, and the song received a spontaneous standing ovation.
After the interval there was a Happy Birthday song from the Choir of No Names in London. The Choir of Hard Knocks had been the inspiration for this and other choirs around the world, we were told. There was an acknowledgement for Levi McGrath, assistant conductor, and a song about the floods written by the choir, strongly making the point that charity comes from all directions, and those in need can have the greatest empathy. Pat Croft’s singing “Little things mean a lot” was greeted with a respectful silence in the hall, while there was a noisier affirmation for a tribute for Welch himself, as he was called “the most genuine person … with a loving heart”. Another aspect of Welch’s talents was his composition “I can”, with the modulation handled well.
Mark Holden wrote “We are blessed” for the choir, an upbeat, slightly evangelical song. But the honours had to go to David Hobson and his rendition of “The impossible dream”, in a voice that has only got better over the years. The moment all had been waiting for came as the choir sang Leonard Cohen’s classic, “Hallelujah”. The song has as much power as it ever did ten years ago, and there was hardly a dry eye in the house as it was teamed with “Glory, Glory Hallelujah (or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). Whoever thought of that arrangement should have been given particular applause. It was an inspiration.
Welch has other choirs around Victoria and many of his singers joined The Choir of Hard Knocks on stage for “You’re the voice”. The sound had the power of any large group of singers, but there was also a symbolism in people from different backgrounds joining together to make music. Hobson and Welch’s duet, “Shout” was the tour de force that appropriately ended the night. There is no doubt at all that Welch and his The Choir of Hard Knocks have plenty to shout about: its members have emerged from the hard knocks that used to be their daily reality, through the hope and inspiration that music brings, to a choir with plenty to shout about! And that doesn’t look like ending any time soon.