Ninety and still on song

14 May 2021

Australians aren’t known for celebrating arts history particularly well, but let’s defy cultural amnesia with a trip down memory lane with the University of Western Australia Choral Society as they prepare to celebrate their 90th birthday.

The University of Western Australia Choral Society has made an enormous contribution to the performance and appreciation of choral music in West Australia since its inception in 1931. Rosalind Appleby chats with conductor Kris Bowtell about the Society’s 90th birthday Gala Concert and the secret to their longevity.

Rosalind Appleby: It blows my mind that a West Australian music ensemble has been in existence for 90 years. That kind of longevity in Australian classical music is so rare. You’ve been involved with the UWA Choral Society as both a singer and conductor. What is the secret to the choir’s success?

Kris Bowtell was appointed conductor of the UWACS in 2019.

Kris Bowtell: Sheer enthusiasm! All of the people involved with UWA Choral Society do it because they love making music and they love the community aspect of it. This is obviously true for the choristers, who are (highly skilled) amateurs, but it’s also true of our orchestras and soloists. As an example, for most concerts we hire an orchestra of local professionals – regulars with WASO and PSO as well as freelancers. Often they will come and play with us once because it’s a gig, and then keep coming back because of the joy of community music-making. There’s a lot of love involved in getting any of our concerts to the performance day, and I think it shows.

RA: The choir is celebrating its 90th birthday on 23 May with a Gala Concert, featuring four acclaimed soloists who began their careers with the chorus. Throughout its long life, the society has striven to support young musicians; the concert soloists Sara Macliver, Fiona Campbell, Paul O’Neill and Mark Alderson all sang with UWACS in the early years of their careers, as did you. How formative were those experiences for you as a young singer and (since 2019) as conductor?

KB: As a singer it was just an inimitable learning experience. Opportunities to sing in a large hall like Winthrop, let alone with a full-sized orchestra, can be really hard to come by. You learn so, so much about working with a conductor, about learning when to sing a bit more and when to save it for later, that you just can’t know until you’re actually having to ride the wave of sound that a 50-piece orchestra plus a 100-plus member choir makes. And then when the call comes to do a bit of solo work with WASO or WA Opera, you’re ready to go. You know how prepared you need to be, how precious rehearsal time really is, and how to look after yourself so that you’re in top form for when it really counts – the gig. That’s why I’m so delighted to be able to pay it forward now, and book young up-and-coming singers. Last Christmas we performed Britten’s ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’, which is totally accessible to young voices, so we hired senior students from WAAPA and UWA as soloists. For some of them it was their first paid engagement, and it was just so lovely to see them give it a red hot go, and do a great job.

As a conductor, working with UWACS is a joy and a privilege. They’re such a lovely bunch of people and as I said earlier, they put so much of themselves into each concert. In each season I try to program something that challenges them (and also something that challenges me) and they always seem to rise to the occasion.

RA: Which brings us to the 90th Gala program. It must be hard to select the highlights from 90 years of music making – what can the audience expect to hear on the night?  

KB: The choral parts of the program are fantastically varied. The concert ranges from Handel’s Zadok the Priest and other favourite choruses by Bach, Haydn and Mozart at one end, to Vaughan Williams’ glorious Serenade to Music and Parry’s monumental ‘I Was Glad’ with full orchestra and organ at the other. With our superb soloists, I gave them carte blanche – and I’m delighted that they’ve elected to sing some works that are absolutely within their core repertoire, and a few that local audiences will probably never have heard them sing before. I won’t give too much away, but the second half of the concert features solos ranging from Bizet to Wagner and Strauss.

RA: Sadly choral performing has really suffered from the COVID-19 restrictions – the amount of air and bacteria shared while singing in a group makes it a high risk activity. Yet in other ways communal singing is so good for our health…

KB: One of the truly great things about choral singing is that it’s one of the few things in life where feeling better is pretty much guaranteed! It’s communal and social, but not competitive. It’s physically and mentally challenging, but the challenge adapts to you: you’re in a big group so if you’re just starting out you’ve got lots of people to learn from. It’s also wonderful for mental health, because it’s such a mindful activity – you can’t be singing a big work with 100 other singers plus orchestra and soloists and be thinking about something else! It’s totally absorbing. And on top of that, it’s the most marvellous music education. In all the craziness of last year, when we came back together in August to start rehearsing again I really couldn’t believe just how much of a relief it was. For years I’ve rarely had a week without rehearsals and gigs, and I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it. In short, it’s utterly joyful.

A black and white archive photo of a large choir standing on a stage with two soloists
From the archives: UWACS performs Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in 1958. Photo supplied

RA: The choir has made a significant contribution to Western Australian culture, and worked under some of history’s finest conductors. Can you give us a potted history of some of the highlights?

KB: This 90th celebratory concert epitomizes the role the University of Western Australia Choral Society has played in contributing to performances and appreciation of choral music for WA audiences since 1931. Initially UWACS performances were limited principally to choral works with piano accompaniment. The first major choral work with orchestra was Mendelssohn’s Elijah, conducted by Dr Malcolm Sargent in 1938. For the next several decades the society combined with other choirs to perform large choral works with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra at the ABC under luminaries such as Sir Thomas Beecham and Percy Grainger. During Sir Frank Calloway’s 25 year tenure, the choir grew from 50 members to 200. He conducted the oratorio on the Gala program, Serenade to Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, no less than five times. The society lost the sponsorship of the ABC in 1980 but continued to stage oratorio repertoire throughout the 1980’s. During the 1990’s performances had to be scaled back due to finances, however this meant opportunities for West Australian young artists opened up, including a performance of Serenade to Music in 1999 with current soloists Sara Macliver and Mark Alderson. Who knows what talents and treasures await in the next 90 years!

RA: After losing the financial stability of the ABC in 1980, the society had to adapt and adjust. Are there things other WA arts organisations can learn about playing the long game from UWACS?

KB: I think most arts organisations have learned the same lessons as UWACS – balance popular works that you know everyone will love and will sell well, with works that you also know people will love, if only they give them a shot. In September we will perform Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor – which is a banger, and absolutely a top-20 choral/orchestral work – and we’ll also perform Prelude and Cube written just a couple of years ago by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. It’s a wonderful piece, a lot of fun, and pays homage to the 18th century while bringing in a lot of typically Kats-Chernin contemporary twists. I can tell you right now that while everyone will thoroughly enjoy the Mozart, they’ll also find it really refreshing to do something that is also absolutely top-shelf in terms of musical quality but quite different, and for audiences and singers alike, quite novel.

In a purely administrative sense, the choir made some very good decisions in the early 2000s about ensuring that there was always a minimum amount in the kitty. That single choice has seen the organisation through good times and bad, last year being a case study of that.

RA: Why should Seesaw readers go to the concert?

KB: This 90th birthday gala offers wonderful music, a great choir, cracking orchestra, absolute best-quality soloists, and an excellent view of the back of my head. What more can you ask for?

The UWA Choral Society Gala Concert is on 23 May 2021 at Winthrop Hall. The festivities continue with “The Big Sing Messiah” and “Mozart Great Mass” in September and a Christmas celebration “In Terra Pax” in December.

Pictured top: Kris Bowtell conducts the UWA Choral Society. Photo supplied

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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