In July 2008 I sang (for the sixth time) with the National Youth Choir of Australia for its first ever Northern Territory tour. Every year the choir meets in a major Australian city to work with a renowned conductor, different each season, and then generally tour a regional area, bringing high quality performances to areas that see many fewer live music concerts than the capitals.
Beginning in Darwin, we spent an intensive week rehearsing a wide variety of repertoire, among which was Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. The work was completely new to me, as it was to most of the other 26 singers being directed by guest Canadian conductor Tony Funk, but it was a rewarding challenge to sing in Hebrew, especially at such a rollicking pace and with complex rhythms. After performing in Darwin, we took the music on the road and headed south for the Red Centre. What an amazing trip, with a fantastically talented and engaged group of young Aussie singers! Some of my favourite people in the whole wide world are singers who have been part of NYCA.
There were many highlights during those two weeks: an unplanned backyard concert in Katherine, breaking into song in Stanley Chasm to ‘test the acoustic’, singing with the Aboriginal women’s choir at the Hermannsburg Mission, and singing under the stars in the Yulara amphitheatre. But for some reason the performance I remember most was the concert we gave in the tiny, historic Catholic church in Tennant Creek, about two thirds of the way to Alice Springs. “The middle of nowhere”, by all reasonable definitions.
We only had an audience of about thirty, but in the very small church this was enough to make the building look almost full. Our programme was met with favourable applause and big smiles, and I think singers and audience alike all had a lovely evening. But when we got to the Bernstein (which we sang accompanied on the church’s electronic keyboard), with its explosive opening chords, the poignant and lyrical solo of the second movement and the beautiful legato lines of the third, I remember pausing to take in where I was and thinking, “I wonder whether this is the first time there’s been a live performance of the Psalms here in Tennant Creek, population about 3000.” And I wonder whether it ever occurred to Lenny Bernstein when he wrote it in 1965 that one day a choir of young Australians from across the country would ever gather there to sing his beautiful music, under a tin roof, under a vast desert sky.
The second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, with the choir from Clare College, Cambridge and countertenor Lawrence Zazzo