The Choir of Hard Knocks celebrates its 10th anniversary on September 13 this year, and those who have followed it loyally for years will be pleased to hear that its original name has been restored. “It’s great to have the name back,” says Jonathon Welch, the director of the choir from the outset. The original Fremantle Media documentary that introduced the choir showed them doing more than singing, with the choir providing a way through for marginalised and homeless people, Welch says.
The director feels that even that first documentary showed opportunities for more than just one choir singing together. He talks of the growth of choral music in Australia and creating musical communities. Hundreds of choirs have been inspired by Choir of Hard Knocks, not just in Australia but as far away as London and cities like Dallas in the United States. Appropriately, its name in recent times has been the Choir of Hope and Inspiration – and those qualities are still there in spades.
A strong focus for Welch in expanding on the work of Choir of Hard Knocks over the past 3 years has been his vision for arts and cultural inclusion programs supporting marginalised and vulnerable communities, and the formation of the School of Hard Knocks.
As part of these innovative programs, the creation of exciting new works has been a strong impetus in the growth of the School with new works including Street Requiem. The work of Australian composers Dr. Kathleen McGuire, Andy Payne, and Welch himself, Requiem was given the ultimate accolade by famed mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade who joined with a mass chorus of singers and chamber orchestra in two California premiere performances of Street Requiem last year. In the prestigious American Prize the work made it into the finals and ultimately was given a special citation for “dignifying the homeless”.
The Dallas Street choir in the US was inspired by both Choir of Hard Knocks and the Requiem to present the work itself. Closer to home (and largely thanks to Jetstar) there will be visits to Perth, Alice Springs, Sydney Opera house, Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, Brisbane and Tasmania! The choir is “very excited” says Welch, in what one feels is quite an understatement.
So what is ahead for the next 10 years? Welch sees it as building on the past decade, with the ultimate goal to affect government policy in relation to people who are marginalised. Already he has other choirs (with 500 singers every week!): local choirs, such as the Latrobe Valley Community Choir and the All Together Choir in Pakenham, along with Victoria University there is the Choir of Opportunity, and the School’s asylum seekers project, Voices Without Borders.
This year the Jonathon will also take Street Requiem to New York and Boston following on from last year’s success of his “Sing the World” tour to Rome, Milan and London.
Looking to respond to specific needs Welch says is the focus. The Big West Festival saw the premiere of his colleague Dr Kathleen McGuire’s and Christina Green’s song suite NO EXCUSES!, performed by women singers and instrumentalists. A project of the School of Hard Knocks the work focuses upon family violence and domestic abuse, with real stories of struggle alongside those of inspirational resilience as shared by women from Melbourne’s western suburbs. The Festival described it as “an emotional and ultimately triumphant journey of strength and hope”. No Excuses! Women’s Chorus included individual community singers plus members of Only Women Aloud, Western Health Choir, Voices of Brimbank, Victoria University Choir, Brimbank Multicultural Choir, School of Hard Knocks and other guest instrumentalists.
“What excites me most is creating new works in response to contemporary issues,” says Welch, quoting the old adage: “When you can’t say it, sing it!”.
A former opera singer, Welch appreciates the importance of keeping his own vocal cords in shape, and has his own projects as well. He enjoyed being part of a BRAVO arts festival at sea cruise last year with Anthony Warlow and James Morrison amongst others. This year he reprises the experience with the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa. “Good music is good music whatever the genre,” he says. “And innovative collaboration shows it”.
“I’d love to do more music theatre even opera with the School of Hard Knocks ” he says.
In the meantime he is planning to sing in Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer at the Sydney Opera House in the near future.*
Another pet project is the Melbourne International Singers Festival started seven years ago, around Queen’s Birthday weekend. Welch is evidently satisfied at securing Kirby Shaw “the grandfather of pop swing and jazz” to oversee proceedings as special guest conductor this year.
Credo from the US and NO EXCUSES! from Australia are just some of the choirs that will combine in works including the Street Requiem.
The wider picture centres on the School of Hard Knocks, now also in Brisbane. The Queensland School launched in October 2014 with the Absolutely Everybody Choral program and three additional arts programs commenced in 2015. There’s a longitudinal research study with the University of Queensland to consider the cost savings of programs and training through the choirs and “Bringing others on the journey” through programs like creative writing.
The Choir of Hard Knocks however remains the jewel in the crown; “an inspiration for a decade”, says Welch, with evident satisfaction. “I have a full dance card, with lots of partners!” he jokes.
*Director of Short Black Opera, Deborah Cheetham, confirmed that Pecan Summer will be presented at the Sydney Opera House (including a Gala Performance on September 12) . Jonathon will indeed reprise his role as the minister. Tickets go on sale in March. “We pretty excited about it”, Deborah told Classic Melbourne.
One of Welch’s initiatives, THECHOIR, has a special program for Valentine’s Day. Details on the Calendar.