It’s a striking name, arising from a powerful concept, but Street Requiem is just the centrepiece for an all-embracing choral festival this weekend. Dr Jonathon Welch, Founding Artistic Director of the School of Hard Knocks, tells Classic Melbourne about the idea.
Conceived by Welch, popularly known as the award-winning conductor of Choir of Hard Knocks, Street Requiem is collaboratively written with Dr Kathleen McGuire, who recently returned from the USA after creating the “Singers of the Street” in San Francisco, and Director of Curriculum for the School of Hard Knocks, Andy Payne.
In their words: Street Requiem is a new choral work that aims to bring a sense of peace, remembrance and hope to many communities that struggle to come to terms with street violence and a loss of safety on our streets in Australia and around the world.
Welch talks enthusiastically about the “real collaboration” between the three composers, with McGuire and Payne quickly picking up on his concept for the Requiem. It came to him on a flight to New Zealand a few years ago when he saw a movie about a little boy on the streets in the USA who had an extraordinary musical talent. This was married with something that is never far from Welch’s mind: “what’s been happening on the streets here in Melbourne” – the coward-punches, violence, even deaths, such as that of Jill Meagher, and later, a homeless man.
Welch and I both grew up in St Kilda and remember that, because parents stressed rules and curfews, we were always safe. But things have changed and members of the choir don’t go like to out after dark now. “We’re mourning for our loss of safety,” says Welch, adding the Requiem is “in memory of those who died homeless”.
The three composers began by analysing a “top ten” of requiems, to see if there was “any rhyme or reason, any ‘recipe’ for requiems”, Welch said. The works included requiems by Britten, Brahms, Mozart and Lloyd-Webber. Although requiems are most often associated with the Christian church, the composers were keen to make it relevant to other faiths as well.
“Musically the styles are very diverse” says Welch, “We juxtaposed, and challenged certain interpretations of Latin text.” Examples were the Pie Jesu he wrote and a Lacrimosa, which is represented by the Celtic poem, She moved through the fair.
“It was an interesting process the three of us working together”, Welch concludes. “The others asked me, ‘How did you know that we’d be able to work together?’ – which was so strange after working together for nine months!”
The Requiem concert takes places on Saturday night at the Melbourne Recital Centre, following a showcase of the festival choirs involved. There’ll be a massed choir of 350 voices combining the forces of Choir of Hope & Inspiration, THECHO!R, members of Voices Without Borders asylum seeker choir and School of Hard Knocks ‘Absolutely Everybody’ choir program from the cities of Latrobe Valley, Brimbank and Casey. Festival soloists include internationally acclaimed contralto Liane Keegan and inaugural Rob Guest Endowment Award-winning artist, Danielle Matthews (“like a little bird, with the voice of Shirley Bassey”, enthuses Welch).
The Voices Without Borders asylum seeker choir (about 30 to 40 voices) is one of Welch’s most recent, and most dear projects. “Public never get to see these people” says Welch, waxing lyrical about their intelligence, politeness and the variety of various occupations and crafts they represent. It must surely be a coup to have attracted Navit, a former “Afghan Idol” winner who was shot at by the Taliban, which had banned all music, and had to leave.
With the School of Hard Knocks encompassing more and more choirs (as well as the original one, now called the Choir of Hope and Inspiration), the idea of a Melbourne Eisteddfod took hold, and most weekend events are to advance that vision. There’ll be 1000 singers involved over 2 days, with Gospel led by musicians from Alabama, and conductors sharing their secrets, amongst other intriguing events.
Most of the events are at Deakin Edge or elsewhere at Fed Square, a venue that Welch describes as “absolutely fantastic” and supportive of his vision to get everyone to experience the joy of choral singing. Choirs from as far away as Wollongong and New Zealand are joining in the weekend activities, and Welch has recently got funding to establish a School of Hard Knocks in Brisbane.
The Festival is a showpiece for what can be achieved. “Excellence” is a word Welch uses a lot, and it’s clearly his aim for his many and varied projects. These include plans for a concert involving pianist Hoang Pham, winner of the 2013 ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year, and “getting some men around a piano” at one of Melbourne’s prestigious clubs. The video Beyond Hard Knocks will have a commercial TV outlet, and the Choir of Hard Knocks celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2016.
All in all, there’s a lot to celebrate – and, despite its sombre centrepiece, that’s what the Melbourne International Singers Festival will do this coming weekend. Highly recommended!
The complete program is here: http://www.schoolofhardknocks.org.au/singers_festival.html