Above : conductor of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Brett Weymark, leads the choir on the Monumental Steps as morning breaks over Sydney Harbour. Featured image: a large crowd assembled well before this concert began at 5.30 am. Photo credit for both images : Keith Saunders

A sizeable crowd was assembled in front of the Sydney Opera House’s Monumental Steps and beyond well before 5.30am. Lightly sprinkling rain could not dampen the crowd’s anticipation of the Sydney Philhamornia Choirs singing in the day and their centenary year for us.

Programmed on this morning were a cappella works from the 13th century to now, including premiere works, setting of Gadigal language, spirituals, folk music, choral music from established and emerging greats of the Western tradition and an arrangement of Dolly Parton’s Light of a Clear Blue Morning.

To start ‘Dawn Chorus’, the choir descended the monumental steps in a purely magical swoop and in an extremely effective atmospheric  moment. They joined us and some very vocal seagulls in the darkness lit only by lights on their scores. With chilling vocalisation and sound effect their concert began.

Deborah Cheetham and Matthew Doyle’s work Tarimi nulay – Long time living here received a stunning premiere by this choir early in the concert. Its freshness of utterance and choral writing with intricate wave-live gesturing made for a profound opening to the performance. This was pure goosebumps material in Gadigal language at the strat of a concert dedicated to celebrating place,  light and hopes for a new day.

This work will be sung every time the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs perform at Tubowgule (Bennelong Point) or elsewhere this year. Its sentiment and strong reminder of place and First Nations people acknowledged country, original community as well as a modern respect and togetherness of all people. This premiere was a highlight of the event and the choirs’ centenary year.

The crowd was treated via an impressively deft rendering by the choir in this premiere. In the pre- dawn, this exciting new work  expressively celebrated the survival, humanity, language, music as well as the pre-invasion history and culture of the people linked to the very  land on which we stood to witness the event.

Above : Composer, soprano and Yorta Yorta woman, Deborah Cheetham, who composed ‘Tarimi nulay – Long time living here’ with Matthew Doyle. This work received its premiere and the first of many performances by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs this year.

Conductor Brett Weymark and vocal forces carefully lifted the morning darkness with a sequence  of exquisite choral moments. Contrasting works clearly entered the quiet and offered a huge range of styles with a successfully managed to convey a variety of atmosphere and nuance in the al fresco environment.

Moments of description such as the wrenchingly beautiful Morning Star by Arvo Pärt sat well alongside other items which were stylistically very different. An equally gentle and  reverent rejoicing presented through the spiritual  My Lord What A Morning or even the Dolly Parton song was not a jarring juxtaposition with contemporary or ancient works in the short and continuous medley of chosen vocal atmospheres.  .

Likewise, the programmed contrasts gifted us the traditional Morning Has Broken in equal intensity to celebrate the arrival of light as the contrasted outpouring by modern choral composer James MacMillan. His work O Radiant Dawn, with its subtle complexities, was performed clearly in the outside acoustic with his reverberant choral effects boldly conveyed.

The signature riveting, precise communication of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs heard inside concert halls was not missing on the Monumental Steps. Easy shifts in style of the well-programmed works delighted.

Two settings from disparate time periods of the texts O Nata Lux and Lux Aeterna, helped consolidate the theme of light expanding  as the dawn crept up on us with a controlled shimmer with sonic glow of a special soundtrack indeed.

With slick choreography and expressive physicality  to match their initial entry, the choir and conductor began the final piece, Sumer is icumen in no less, as they broke formation and ascended the stairs to disappear from the morning.

The choir then emerged one final time  in a joyous line beneath the Opera House sails to a huge ovation. This crowd reaction clearly showed the success of this performance concept. It also demonstrated  a continued unique brilliance from the versatile choirs in this one hundred year old Australian arts  organisation.


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