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23 May 2011

Out, Proud and Loud

Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir Celebrates Twenty Years of Australian Song

Out, Proud and Loud

In 2011, the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir (SGLC) celebrates its 20th anniversary. A milestone for any ensemble, the last 20 years have seen significant changes in the choir and the community in which it operates. One aspect of the choir's performance which has remained consistent throughout its history, however, is its promotion of Australian music. Australian repertoire is so important to choir members that it forms a significant part of the repertoire for SGLC's 20th anniversary retrospective, to be held on Saturday 4 June at the Sydney Town Hall.

Titled 'Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir Goes Platinum', the June concert includes 20 songs, one for each year of the choir's life. Choristers past and present were given the opportunity to vote for one song in each year that they held membership. SGLC members (and also the choir's audience!) traditionally have a great love of musical theatre and pop, especially queer anthems by groups such as ABBA. When given the chance to vote on their favourite songs, however, members revealed much broader tastes. Of the 20 pieces chosen, eight were by Australian composers. Five of these were written specially for the choir.

In some circles Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir needs no introduction, but in case you haven't been active in the queer music scene over the last 20 years, a short review of the choir's activities indicates the group's extraordinary versatility. SGLC is one of the most eclectic community ensembles around, performing everything from baroque opera to fetish cabaret (although if you saw our production of Purcell's Fairy Queen, I'd forgive you for wondering if there's really much difference between those two genres at least). Established in 1991, the choir has won numerous awards, achieving international acclaim with Carl Vine's Mythologia, performed with the Sydney Dance Company for the Sydney 2000 Olympics Cultural Festival. SGLC also hosted the first Australasian Gay & Lesbian Choral Festival in 2001, and the Sydney Gay Games Choral Festival in 2002.

In addition to its own local and national concert appearances, SGLC toured Europe in 1998, Auckland in 2005 and Canada and North America in 2006 (with an all-Australian program). In 2009 the choir's production of Purcell's opera The Fairy Queen became the first opera in the world to be staged by a queer choir. SGLC's second visit to the National Choral Championships in Wagga Wagga was the subject of the documentary, Something to Sing About, and the choir has made five recordings featuring a number of Australian works, including a complete recording of Elena Kats-Chernin's Talk Show.

Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir is completely unauditioned, welcoming singers of all abilities. Before performing in a concert, new members participate in a musical skills audit where their vocal range is checked: they sing a piece of their choice ('Happy Birthday' is popular, as is Cyndi Lauper's 'True Colours'), and we ask a few questions about their musical knowledge. The audit is designed for musical staff to gauge the skills and abilities in the group. It is not an audition, so no one is rejected as a result of it. This means that we welcome into the choir people of all abilities, from lapsed professionals to a significant number who 'haven't sung since primary school … and that was a long time ago!' Considering the wide range of experience and skill levels in the choir, I continue to be amazed at the cohesive sound and challenging repertoire which are a hallmark of every performance.

Some of the most challenging repertoire which SGLC has undertaken includes Australian works. Yet a tough rehearsal process is clearly no deterrent to choristers, who voted strongly in favour of including eight Australian works in the program of 20 songs for our June retrospective. All of these works are treasured not just for their content, but for their place in the choir's history, with each song being associated with special memories on stage and off. These eight songs represent only a portion of the choir's involvement with Australian music. Many other composers have featured in our programs, including a commission from Nigel Butterley, and works by Peter Sculthorpe, Katy Abbott, Paul Castles, Miloslav Penicka, Luke Cummins, and choir member Ro Dancer, to name but a few. That their music can speak directly to all of us, even when singing what might be our very first experience of contemporary Australian music, is testament to the ability of each composer to tell a story through song.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir

The eight pieces featured in our June concert all tell very different stories. The first Australian song in SGLC's history was penned by its founding Music Director, Stephen Schafer. The choir was formed in 1991 at the height of the AIDS era, when fighting the epidemic, and nursing those who succumbed to it, was a major part of the gay and lesbian community's activities. It is no surprise that one of the choir's earliest performances was a candlelight vigil for AIDS victims, yet the fact that the choir's involvement in such an event seemed natural by no means meant it was easy. Stephen wanted a song to remember those we had lost, and to acknowledge the vitality of community support at this time - but it had to be very simple, so that the choir could perform it even at times of immense emotional strain. His round These Candles We Burn became a staple of the Choir's repertoire, often performed with tears, but always without faltering.

In 1993 SGLC tackled Martin and Peter Wesley-Smith's When We Are Old And Gay, an experience many choristers remember well, as it was one of the hardest pieces the young choir had attempted. The choir mastered it in time for its return to the National Choral Championships in Wagga to defend its controversial win in 1992 (when we had refused a request to rename ourselves 'The Darlinghurst Choir'). When We Are Old And Gay has remained in the repertoire ever since.

One of the audience members at the choir's first concert, at the Mars Bar in Sydney, happened to be Gordon Kerry. He became the first composer to receive a commission from the choir, writing a number of songs, including The Color of His Hair (1995), a setting of A. E. Housman's poem written on hearing about Oscar Wilde's trial. This cheeky setting of a sobering message about discrimination remained in the choir's repertoire for a number of years. It was in fact one of the first songs I heard SGLC sing, when, with my first (secret) girlfriend by my side, my high school choir competed against SGLC in the Sydney Eisteddfod in 1997. I still remember how magnificent they sounded, although neither of us won that year!

In 1998 SGLC commissioned Elena Kats-Chernin and, in conjunction with librettist Hilary Bell, Elena wrote Talk Show for us, a multi-movement work based on the 1995 murder of Scott Amedure, after he outed himself on the Jenny Jones Show. Talk Show was an incredible challenge for the choir, but the hard work paid off when we took the piece on tour to the Gay Games in Amsterdam, and received a standing ovation after our performance in the Concertgebouw. Talk Show's first movement, 'Got A Secret', will feature in the 20th anniversary retrospective.

One of the most exciting projects in the choir's history occurred in 2000, as part of the Cultural Festival for the Sydney Olympic Games. The choir's second Music Director, Jonathon Welch AM, and Sydney Dance Company's Artistic Director Graeme Murphy, were keen to collaborate, and the result was Carl Vine's Mythologia, with Dr Suzanne McAlister assisting in devising the scenario. The performance received international acclaim, also touring to Brisbane, and choir members have fond memories of working with the dancers and frocking up in costumes that involved PVC piping but were nevertheless extraordinarily effective. Not surprisingly, the movement selected for performance in June is the 'Bacchanalia', which has us dusting off our ululations.

SGLC followed this amazing year with a major commission from Matthew Hindson, Heartland (2001). Matthew worked closely with choristers to devise a libretto, and texts include Sappho, the Book of Ruth, and Christina Rossetti. Heartland was commissioned for the first Australasian Gay & Lesbian Choral Festival, Camp Music (since rebranded as 'Out And Loud'), and Richard Gill conducted the premiere. SGLC reprised the work in 2009, and the final movement, 'Did You Miss Me?' remains immensely popular, with its typical hindsonesque dance rhythms. It is a testament to the choir's powers of enunciation that at the last performance of this movement, an audience member was heard to ask, very clearly during an opportune bar of rest, 'Did they just sing "eat me, drink me, suck my juices??"' Matthew's music obligingly repeats the line, followed by a second general pause, in which the same audience member was heard to exclaim, 'They did, they did sing "eat me, drink me, suck my juices!"' Our thanks go to Christina Rossetti for this immortal line.

Iain Grandage's Three Australian Bush Songs entered our repertoire in 2002 and have remained favourites ever since, especially 'Sunset', which is part of the June program. In 2005 we tackled Sarah Hopkins's Past Life Melodies for the first time, and, in 2006, won the Australian Choral section of the Sydney Eisteddfod with it. Past Life Melodies also received a standing ovation when SGLC members performed it at the 2006 OutGames in Montreal, as part of the Combined Gay & Lesbian Choirs of Australia and New Zealand. All of these songs have held significant places in the Choir's performing history, and we look forward to revisiting them in the Sydney Town Hall in June.

As can be seen, Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir has commissioned a number of works over its lifetime, and 2011 will be no exception, with the choir funding its most significant commission to date. Composer John Peterson is writing a 50-minute major choral work, with mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists and accompanied by piano and string quartet, to be premiered in November at Marrickville Town Hall. I approached John to fulfil SGLC's commission because his choral works are always eminently singable, and thought-provoking for the audience without being inaccessible. He seemed like a perfect match for SGLC, and we are very excited to be working with him. John's brief is to write a major choral work which is relevant to the experiences of the gay and lesbian community over the past twenty years, but which is also more broadly relevant to the wider community. Our aim is to produce a topical work that any community choir of a reasonable standard can use as the major work on their program. The texts are drawn from a variety of sources, including a range of poets, the sacred Hindu text the Mahabharata, and newspaper headlines. We are especially thrilled to feature the words of SGLC's patron, the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, in the final movement.
I have learnt, over the past seven years, that while art can entertain, it also has the power to change the way people think. Any song performed by the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir takes on new meaning coming from our lips, our perspective. And people are so receptive to what we have to say - it's hard to hate a bunch of poofs and dykes when all they are doing is singing beautiful music for you! This is one of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir's core messages: the power of saying something through song. Now I feel that every time I am on stage and am not using art to its full capacity - to provoke, to persuade, to inspire and to move - I am wasting an opportunity. On behalf of SGLC, my thanks to every Australian composer and musician who has contributed to helping us make change through music over the past twenty years, and I invite you to raise your glasses to the next twenty. Or even better, join us.

Events details

Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir Goes Platinum: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective.
Saturday 4 June, 7.30pm at Sydney Town Hall, Sydney, NSW.
Event details in the AMC Calendar. See also: www.sglc.org
John Peterson commission: Saturday 5th November at 7:30pm, Marrickville Town Hall. See www.sglc.org for details.

Further links

Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir (www.sglc.org)

Sarah Penicka-Smith has been the Music Director of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir since 2005. She is also Choir Master of the Willoughby Symphony Choir and Director of Music at St Andrew’s College, the University of Sydney.


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