In December 1992, Richard Pratt AO undertook the role of Foundation Chancellor at Swinburne University of Technology. Richard Pratt was a successful Melbourne businessman and philanthropist who donated generously to the University. He particularly requested a choir to be formed at the University as he identified a need for students and staff to diversify their cultural interests. In 1994, the Swinburne Choral Group was formed, led by Bruce Macrae and supported by a grant from the University and Mr Pratt.
The Swinburne Choral Group began meeting on Tuesday evenings 7:30-9:30pm in the Auburn Uniting Church Hall in Oxley Road, Hawthorn opposite the University. This original choir consisted of University personnel including academic staff, alumni staff and a small number of students. Maureen Kennedy, Chris Simpson, Maureen Balsillie and Richard Ballantyne were some of the foundation members.
The Swinburne Choral Group was a 4-part choir consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and bass with most choristers having previously studied classical music and renowned choral works. The choir was a formal choir and the Inaugural End of Year Concert held on December 4th, 1994 highlighted its formality with a programme which included Bach, Schubert and Mozart.
During this time when Bruce Macrae was musical director, the choir performed at Raheen, in Kew, the home of Richard and Jeannie Pratt. One of the more exciting performances by the Swinburne Choral Group was singing at a Care Giving Conference for Pastoral Carers in one of the very large entertaining rooms at Raheen. The choral group also performed at some Swinburne University graduation ceremonies, singing the Australian Anthem and “Gaudeamus Igitur”. Bruce Macrae resigned as director in 1998.
The choir was subsequently led by Bruce Leviston. The choir repertoire was expanding and, at this time, funding and support from the university was reducing. The name of the choir was changed to Swinburne Singers. The choir took on some big challenges including a Concert with Art Nova titled “A Pleasant Sunday Afternoon in Melbourne 1897” at Billilla, an historic mansion in Brighton. The Swinburne Singers performed temperance songs, educating goodly citizens about the evils of the demon drink!
A celebrated Melbourne organist, Hugh Fullerton, was appointed the new musical director in 1999. The Choir performed very regularly with great musical diversity and range and again underwent another name change to become Swinburne Chorale. As the president, Chris Male, reported in 1999 in her Annual report, the choir’s repertoire that year included Percy Grainger, Vaughan Williams and Beethoven’s Hallelujah Chorus. Two evensongs, one choral matins, two afternoon concerts and two carol services were performed. A highlight of this year was competing in the Royal South Street Ballarat Eisteddfod in the Open Age Choir category, with performances of “The Magnificat Blue Bird” by Stamford and a Scottish folk song “The Apple Tree”, at Her Majesty’s Theatre. The choir was placed second with 254 points behind the Henderson Chorale from Mildura.
During the early 2000’s, the choir was directed by Jonathon Wallis, a classically trained musician and chorister who performed with the Choir of Ormond College, Ensemble Gombert and Pablo, an acapella male sextet. Around this time, the committee of Swinburne Chorale created an identifying logo, “Something to Sing About”, which the choir has retained ever since. In an interview with the Progress Press Newspaper, Jonathon reported he was really enjoying choosing pieces that extended the classical repertoire of the choir to include spirituals, folk songs, madrigals and Australian music. One memorable concert was an all Australian music programme with a 4-part bush band. Jonathon Wallis departed the choir to study in London and Michael Flaherty took over the reins during 2003.
Michael introduced the choir to African and American gospel music resulting in the choir performing an African themed concert in May 2004. It was also in 2004 that the choir moved premises for its Tuesday rehearsals. The choir had continued to meet in the Auburn Uniting Church hall since formation but with a rental increase for this venue, the choir relocated to St Joseph’s Church in Denham Street, Hawthorn. This resulted in the development of a strong relationship with the Hawthorn Catholic Church, The Immaculate Conception. The choir performed on many occasions at church services at Easter and Christmas. In particular, singing “Locus Iste” by Bruckner at a funeral for one of its fellow choristers was very meaningful and a great honour for the choir.
2005 was a busy year for the choir, with performances on four occasions at the Gospel of Grace Concert, the Great Chorus Concert, a Carols Festival and at mass and Easter services for the Immaculate Conception.
Michael was very creative and wrote the music and lyrics for a lengthy concert piece, “The Creation”. It took a lot of learning and practice, but the choir rose to the occasion during its performance. Michael travelled a long distance to attend rehearsals and was about to be married, so he decided to end his relationship with the choir at the end of 2008. On his departure, he was thanked for his leadership and farewelled at a lunch at the Kellybrook Winery.
Sarah Mandie became the first female musical director of the Swinburne Chorale, commencing in the position in 2009. She was well credentialed having completed a diploma of music performance, singing professionally for 20 years, teaching voice and leading vocal and choral workshops as well as community choirs. Besides her qualifications and experience, it was Sarah’s passion and musicality that choir members immediately embraced and loved. Her passion for singing and her choice of songs provided therapeutic, social and wellbeing benefits to the members of the choir.
Under Sarah’s leadership, the choir undertook some challenging projects over several years. In 2013, Swinburne Chorale recorded a twelve track CD of Australian music which included Australian indigenous and colonial songs as well as contemporary music. Under Sarah’s superb guidance the choir spent a Saturday and Sunday recording the CD a wonderful challenging and exhilarating experience. The songs were performed and the CD, “Our Land, Our Country, Our Home”, was launched at a concert at the Augustine Centre, Minona Street, Hawthorn. Two years later, another project resulted in the production of a songbook, “Bridges of Song”, and the performance of the Divercity Concert, singing in 8 different languages (Italian, Greek, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, Rajasthani and Bangla). In order to make this happen, the choir hosted 6 singing workshops which were led by song experts from different cultures. These were open to members of the public. These projects were made possible by the applications for, and subsequent awarding of, financial grants from the Boroondara City Council.
With the rebuild of the aged care facility at St Joseph’s in 2015, another move of the choir’s rehearsal space was necessary, this time up the hill to the small hall at Christ Church, Hawthorn in Wood Street. This proved to be a very satisfactory arrangement and the larger church hall next door provided a good performance space for some of the biannual concerts that were held for many years under Sarah’s leadership. During this time, the choir also performed at many community events, in a number of aged care facilities and at the Hawthorn Farmers’ Market.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 Virus pandemic struck Melbourne. It was well known that singing as a group was especially dangerous for viral spread. Consequently, the choir was unable to meet in person to rehearse for most of this year, so Swinburne Chorale went “online”, and Sarah directed the choir’s singing via the Zoom platform. For many, this provided social connection with an ongoing opportunity to sing and learn new musical pieces. For some, it helped them cope with the isolation experienced through community restrictions. However, Zoom and online choir did not suit all members.
The choir’s singing ability continued to improve under Sarah’s direction. Swinburne Chorale, or as Sarah calls it “Swinny Singers”, has achieved much, completed projects and grown together during Sarah’s leadership. The association between Sarah and Swinburne Chorale is ongoing and is now in its eleventh year.
Singing at Raheen, the home of Richard and Jeannie Pratt.
Singing in the foyer of the Melbourne Concert Hall, sponsored by ESSO.
Coming second at the Royal South Street Ballarat Eisteddfod in the Open Age Choir category.
Recording and performing a CD of Australian music, “Our Land Our Country Our Home”.
Producing a songbook, “Bridges of Song” and performing in the Divercity Concert, singing in 8 different languages.
Adapting to virtual choir on Zoom due to the COVID -19 pandemic.
Functioning of the Choir
The choir became a community choir around the year 1999, after initially commencing as a University Choir in 1994. For the community choir to function, it needed to become independent and self-resourcing. At present, funding is sourced from members fees, Boroondara community grants, sausage sizzle fund-raisers, concert performances and raffles.
Swinburne Chorale has seen many members come and go over the years, but choir numbers stay stable at around 25 members.
The choir is always changing, evolving and adapting. The repertoire of the choir is mainly chosen and directed by the current musical director, each one’s individual skills and musical interests enhanced by input from choir members.
The choir has a democratically elected committee of management, consisting of a president, treasurer, secretary and committee members.
In its 26-year history (until 2020) the choir has had 6 Musical Directors: Bruce Macrae, Bevan Leviston, Hugh Fullerton, Jonathon Wallis, Michael Flaherty and Sarah Mandie.
The choir’s presidents have included Christine Male, Maureen O’Sullivan, Loretto Leyland, Pauline Betson, Liz Cosstick and John Harris.
Many people have worked hard to make the choir a success over its history, and in recent years Wendy Sharpe, Geraldine Wigg, Carmel Gould and Rita Pachauri have made great contributions to the running of the choir.
As 2021 approaches, the singers of the Swinburne Chorale are waiting for the time when they can reconvene and sing together safely as a face to face choir and experience again the joys of performing for the wider community. The choir has brought much joy and social connectedness to its members who have benefited greatly, in a physical, psychological and emotional sense from singing in the choir. The Swinburne Chorale highlights the wonderful benefits of choral singing and of belonging to a group of supportive members who come together to achieve a common goal.
We Welcome All to Sing with Us.
Written by Kathy Watty with support from, and thanks to, Wendy Sharpe and Rosemary Cannington, all long-term members of the Swinburne Chorale.