Pic by Selwyn Lemos and Ban-Foo Leong

The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presented a cabaret style show “In the Mood” last Friday evening at the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House. Audience members may be well familiar with seeing the Choirs numbering in the hundreds spread across the choir seats at Opera House Concert Hall with full orchestra in attendance but, this time was a very different scene. 

Set up as a 1930s-40s radio show for the ABC, just over 30 singers were set in semi-circle rows decorated with big band music stand banners of the show name. Downstage were three supporting musicians of Gary Daley piano/accordion, Mark Harris double bass and Loretta Palmeiro saxophone/flute/clarinet. Would have loved to see a snare drum with brushes to complete the group.

The radio show theme was carried through with large “APPLAUSE” signs to which the audience loved responding. Also an “On Air” light box stage left and home made megaphones. Doubling in the role of MC was Conductor Brett Weymark who clearly enjoyed introducing the numbers in a classic, old style radio voice including an hilarious ABC news update. Improvised quips and witticisms came very naturally – which were funnier than the script – and the audience loved him.

The performance varied greatly in musical eras from American Songbook standards of the 1940s as far back as John Dowland from the Renaissance period. A few items could have done with some more rehearsal time, others were beautifully clear and accurate. Arrangements of the tunes were interesting adding a 50’s style jazz backing to more classical pieces and even breaking into a fugue in the style of the 1960’s vocal group the Swingle Singers.                   

The most memorable aspect of the evening was the intimacy of the Utzon room where audience members felt very much in touch with the performers and were bold in voicing their support and appreciation. To close the first half (Over the Rainbow) and begin the second half (Ain’t Misbehavin’), choir members spread themselves throughout the venue surrounding the audience with sound which was very well received.

Interspersed amongst the songs were poems and readings performed as solo works from choir members. Particularly memorable was a poem about an aristocratic man eating alone which caused loud Music Hall style sympathy from the audience, a male and female reciting what appeared to be a true account of visiting Sydney plus a reading from a male with a superb French accent which began beautifully but was eventually drowned out by the accordion. Without microphones some of the readers were challenged with being heard at the back of the room but were generally forgiven. The audience was having a great time anyway.

Overall, the general program was too widely spread in genres – a bit like being forced to swallow the entire smorgasbord in an attempt to showcase the skills of the performers. Should they choose to make a new improved version of the cabaret in the future – and I really hope they do – strengthening the theme of 1930s-40s ABC radio would make the program simpler and more powerful. It’s a great era to choose in radio history for classical and popular music did sit well side by side. Discovering what really was played together on the air during those times and staying faithful to the musical arrangements of the era would be a good research project.

Smaller details could also strengthen the theme, for example, having all their music in a single folder to prevent the distracting swapping of scores throughout the evening and styling the women’s hair to match the era. Another improvement would be to get outside advice on jazz phrasing. It’s hard to listen to “I got rhythm” and “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” when the swing is not authentically swinging. Genre specialists such as Dan Barnett or James Morrison would be a great help in getting this show more aligned with the original broadcasts of the times.

The “In the Mood” themed concert is a big winner for the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Potential is huge to grow a concert audience following and to venture into the corporate arena should they choose. It’s great for the singers to expand their skill set from regular repertoire into Jazz. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause for several curtain calls and everyone went home smiling. We look forward to a “Mark II” version next year, hopefully.

Featured image of Choir by Selwyn Lemos and Ban-Foo Leong