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Giving voice to magical moments

7 August 2023

As one of Australia’s oldest choirs prepares for a special concert, conductor Kristin Bowtell reflects on the power of choral music. 

There is nothing quite like the sound of voices raised in unison for Kristin Bowtell.   

“And there’s nothing like being one of those voices, being in the middle of it all,” he says.  “When it starts to come together, and people start to synchronise their breathing, and start really listening to each other – it’s just magical.  And then when you sing for an audience and you can feel everyone drawn into that magical space all together … wow.” 

The enthusiasm for voice is understandable from the conductor of UWA Choral Society, although it took him a while to find his own. 

“I was a flute player originally and played bass guitar in cover bands.  In my early 20s I became a very keen choral singer,” he says. “I was a teacher, which naturally led to conducting children’s choirs, which led to studying choral conducting at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, UK.  Professional singing with orchestras and opera companies, etc came later, but I never lost my love of choral music.” 

Kristin Bowtell loves the power of voice. Photo supplied

When Bowtell came back from Europe, he filled in for UWA Choral Society’s then musical director, Chris van Tuinen, a few times.   

“I enjoyed working with the choir, and they enjoyed working with me, and it became a semi-regular thing.  When I started singing more seriously, they also gave me a small solo opportunity, and then another,” he recalls. 

“Over a few years that gave me the opportunity to grow as a singer to much more challenging parts, including the baritone solos in Carmina Burana a few years ago.  That was really valuable to me, and as conductor I’ve tried to continue to provide those same opportunities for growth to people at various stages of their careers.” 

So it seems only proper that he’ll be directing a cast of more than 130 performers for UWA Choral Society’s performance of Carl Orff’s rousing Carmina Burana

The choir will be joined by the Aquinas Schola Cantorum, as well as featured singers Jessica Blunt, Perry Joyce and Brett Peart, with Lea Hayward and Gladys Chua on piano and Paul Tanner on percussion. 

While there is no denying the massive task of corralling all this talent for one seamless performance, Bowtell thrives on artistic collaboration. 

“Collaborating with other ensembles is a key focus of our artistic planning.  In recent years we’ve put on concerts with Australian Baroque, Aquinas Schola Cantorum, Fremantle Symphony Orchestra, and Perth Undergraduate Choral Society,” he says.   “The cross-pollination is really healthy for arts organisations – we meet new people, and find new ideas and ways of doing things, and audiences encounter ensembles and repertoire they might not have known before.  It gets us all out of our comfort zones, and that’s really healthy for us as well as the artistic life of our city.” 

Julie Hosking caught up with the conductor as he prepares for the concert on Sunday, which will also feature What would I give…, a new work from local composer Lydia Gardiner. 

Julie Hosking: The UWA Choral Society has a long and proud history. What makes it so special? 
Kristin Bowtell: Firstly, UWA Choral Society is one of the oldest continuously existing choirs in Australia.  We celebrated our 90th birthday in 2021, and there will be many more!  Secondly, and most importantly, it’s a wonderful group of people who love making music together.  They take pride in their performances and enjoy each other’s company and it really shows – the joy comes across to the audience.   

JH: How do you become a member of the choir and what does it involve?   
KB: UWA Choral Society is always keen to welcome new singers!  We welcome people who have some background in music to come and sing with us for a couple of rehearsals and see if it’s a good fit for them (and vice versa).  Then there’s a fairly low-key audition.  People don’t have to wait for ages to have a go, because we welcome new members throughout the year.  If you’d like to sing some Bruckner and Christmas carols with us in December, come along to the start of the next season’s rehearsals in September.  There’s more info on the website

UWA Choral Society is one of the oldest continuous choirs in Australia. Photo supplied

JH: Tell us about Carmina Burana. What do you think is the secret to its enduring popularity?  
KB: The opening chorus is so well known – even people with no background in classical music will recognise it instantly from the Carlton Draft ad (it’s a big ad) and in heaps of films and TV shows.  That’s not enough to justify its enduring popularity, though.  The key, I think, is the contrasts: huge, epic choruses that blow your head off, contrasted with the most delicate and intimate moments.  It’s very tuneful, and everyone has a chance to really show off, which is great fun. The soloists all have really impressive, virtuosic music to sing, as does the choir in places, and it’s a tour de force for the players.   

JH: The concert also features local composer Lydia Gardiner’s new work. Can you give readers a sense of the challenges and joys it presents for the singers. 
KB: It’s great!  I’m enjoying it more and more as I become more comfortable with it and find more nuance and texture and emotional meaning.  Lydia’s work is relatively short, but she combines the mature voices and youthful voices in a way that is really evocative and emotional.  For me, it’s a meditation on the passing of time and the movement from one stage of life into another, and put alongside the hedonism and earthiness of Carmina Burana it’s a really delightful contrast. 

It is challenging to perform.  New music almost always is – people sometimes misunderstand why that is the case.  Imagine for a second that no-one in 2023 had ever heard of JS Bach.  Mendelssohn hadn’t come across the St Matthew Passion.  There had been no great rebirth of baroque music in the mid-20th century.  Now imagine that someone cracked open a trove of JS Bach cantatas and passions, and people had to figure out how to perform this music without any guidance on how to break it down into manageable parts.  It would be so much more difficult than we find Bach to be, because we would lack a scheme of reference. 

UWA Choral Society will also perform a new work from local composer Lydia Gardiner. Photo supplied

And that’s what happens with new music: you crack open a brand-new piece, and you have to figure things out from the ground up.  But that’s also what makes it great – we can’t perform a ‘wrong’ interpretation, because no-one’s ever done it before.  We can have fun with it, and just have a crack, and learn as we go.  And we certainly have! 

JH: The choir also performs with young singers from the Aquinas Schola Cantorum – how important is it to bring the generations together in such a way?
KB: It’s really important!  We’ve worked with the boys and young men of Aquinas a few times now, and it’s a win-win situation for everyone.  The young singers get to perform these big pieces with lots of people, and professional soloists and players, which is hugely fun.  

And if the boys love it then they’ll be inspired to continue with it, and seek out more opportunities to make music, and the more music and art-making there is in the world, the better off we’ll all be.  They will learn a lot from it, but it’s their holistic development as people that I think is more important. 

For us, and for audiences, the sound of children’s voices is a beautiful contrast to the sound of adult voices, and it’s just so inspiring to see the next generation take up the baton.  And the boys are so impressively good!  The work they do with their director, Hugh Lydon, is just fantastic.   

JH: As the conductor, how do you navigate the different pieces of the puzzle for a complete picture? 
KB: Patiently! I often think of something the great American choral director Robert Shaw said, which is that when people come together to make music, they are giving up the most precious thing they have: time.  They could be doing anything else, so you have to make it a worthwhile and positive experience.  I firmly believe that if I create an atmosphere of trust, where all the performers feel valued, then it will translate to a better performance.  There’s a lot of planning, obviously, to coordinate 130-odd performers.  And when we’re all in the room together, I need to make sure everyone really hears and listens to all of the other components – it’s then that the music becomes more than the sum of its parts. 

JH: The performance also brings the choir back to Perth Concert Hall, 50 years after they sang at the opening. What does that mean for UWA Choral Society?  
KB: It’s always a delight to sing at PCH.  Without a doubt, it is the best acoustic in Perth for performances of choral/orchestral music.  Our members are very aware of its history – we have an archivist who does a great job in educating us – and this kind of historical resonance makes us all proud of being part of this great choir. 

UWA Choral Society performs Carmina Burana and What would I give… at Perth Concert Hall, 13 August 2023. 

Pictured top: UWA Choral Society will be joined by soloists and the Aquinas Schola Cantorum for a special concert. Photo supplied

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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