The idea of Professor A.D. Ross, Foundation Professor of Physics and Mathematics, to form a choral society within the University of WA was realized in March 1931. The first performance of the 70-voice choir on 8th Dec 1931, with co-founder and Honorary Conductor Mr. A. J. Leckie, was in the Assembly Rooms in Pier Street. Many of the original functions and traditions established at that time have continued for the last 89 years. A critique in The West Australian following this concert could apply to the present day: ”The tenor department is less effectively supplied”.
The traditional Wednesday rehearsal was moved from the dining hall of the new St Georges College to the newly completed Winthrop Hall in 1932. This remained the principal venue until replaced by the Callaway Auditorium in the early 1990’s.
Described as a “Town and Gown” organisation, the choir still consists of auditioned members from inside and outside the University. Concert dress reflects this concept with black representing the colour of the academic gown and red the community. Jewel-coloured blouses were worn from late 1996 to 2001. However, an all black concert dress was reinstated in 2002 and new red scarves reintroduced in 2012.
For the first 21 years (1931-52) choir performances were limited principally to part songs and choral works of cantata length with piano accompaniment. The first major choral work with orchestra was Mendelssohn’s Elijah, conducted by Dr Malcolm Sargent under the auspices of the ABC, with a combined choir performing in His Majesty’s Theatre in 1938. In 2004, twenty-one choristers sang this work with invited choirs in Carnegie Hall, New York.
WINTHROP to the CONCERT HALL
Mr. Frank Callaway was appointed Reader in Music in the Faculty of Education in 1953. As the second Honorary Conductor, his collaboration with the ABC produced 26 years of regular performances with its orchestra, the WASO. It was an era of many “first performances” in WA of major works including Vaughan William’s Sea Symphony, Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Verdi’s Requiem and singing under distinguished visitors such as Percy Grainger, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Malcolm Sargent.
Other highlights included participation in a massed choir of 700 voices conducted by Sir Frank Callaway at the Opening and Closing ceremonies of The Empire Games in1962. At the opening of The Perth Concert Hall, in January1973, over 200 UWACS choristers performed A Choral Fanfare specifically composed by James Penberthy and conducted by Tibor Paul with WASO and SASO.
The final concert with WASO and the ABC was Brahms’ A German Requiem conducted by Georg Tintner in the Concert Hall in 1980. The choir was prepared by John Winstanley, the recently appointed Honorary Conductor of UWACS, Head of Music at Claremont Teachers’ College and an ex UWACS chorister.
The loss of the cooperative relationship with the ABC, which had provided financial stability, resulted in a restructure. UWACS then became an independent Incorporated Body with an updated Constitution.
Four Golden Jubilee concerts in 1981; Mozart’s Requiem, Verdi’s Requiem, a campus collaborative concert and a “Jubilee Concert” were musically successful despite earlier problems of adjusting to recent changes after the retirement of Sir Frank Callaway.
John Winstanley’s last major concert in 1985, Bach’s Mass in B Minor with UWACS, The Festival Chorus and Perth Sinfonia (Leader Margaret Winstanley) was recorded. Sir Frank Callaway commented: “it was ‘a milestone’ in the life of the society”.
In the late 1980’s Roy Rimmer continued the practice of combining with other choral groups such as Perth Oratorio Choir (POC), Festival Chorus and Perth Undergraduate Choral Society (PUCS) to present concerts. The two most significant were in successive years. The 75th Anniversary in 1988 of The University of Western Australia was celebrated by performing Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Orff’s Carmina Burana with conductor Varujan Kojian in the Concert Hall. As part of a Festival of Perth concert in “Musique de France”, the choir sang in Berlioz’s Requiem Grand Mass for the Dead Op5 with Louis Fremaux conducting and Richard Gill Chorus Director.
Membership had risen to 170 when Ian Westrip was appointed Conductor in 1990. Again a 1991 Festival of Perth Concert was a challenge singing Mikis Theodorakis’ Axion Esti in Greek! The long tradition of participation in Festival of Perth events started in1954 and continues, with members having sung, at dawn on Cottesloe Beach and at dusk in Albany, a work commissioned by Iain Grandage for the 2012 Festival opening.
In the Diamond Jubilee program of 1991, past conductors Sir Frank Callaway, John Winstanley and Roy Rimmer each conducted an item. To mark this anniversary the “generous gift” of a pair of Basset Horns was presented to the music department in acknowledgement of the relationship with the university and in appreciation for use of rehearsal venues and orchestral support. A history of the choir was also published at that time.
Finances reached a low point in the mid 1990’s. The choir instituted inventive ways to raise funds, source sponsorship and still maintain interesting programs with audience appeal by using smaller orchestrations. Under Warwick Stengards (who on occasions accompanied the choir on his violin during rehearsals) and Prue Ashurst the choir performed delightful themed concerts with titles such as “Splendours of Venice and Vivaldi”, “American Concert”, “Puccini and Pasta” and “Pastime in Good Company”. Alan True, a West Australian reviewer wrote: “finest singing heard from this choir in a long time”. Choral works by Purcell, Dvorak, Rutter and Bruckner added variation to the repertoire. Performances of Handel’s Messiah in Bunbury, Fremantle, Belvoir, Swan Valley, Leeuwin Estate and Mandurah and concerts arranged in New Norcia, York and Cockburn helped promote choral music to wider audiences.
John Beaverstock (2000-2006) continued a creative but careful approach to programming, resulting in an improved financial position. Major works in conjunction with POC included Haydn’s The Seasons in 2002, Handel’s Israel in Egypt in 2003 and Mendelssohn’s Elijah with PUCS in 2004. In 2006, UWACS celebrated its 75th Anniversary with a concert of Music by Mozart, where the current logo was used for the first time. In a second concert, works by three West Australian composers, Dom Moreno, Iain Grandage and David Tunley were performed, with Grandage and Tunley conducting their own compositions. A CD of favourite choruses sung by UWACS was produced. The society also received a generous anonymous donation enabling Mozart’s orchestration of Handel’s Messiah to be performed in the final 75th celebration.
In 2009, Burhan Güner extended the choir musically with his last concert of a three-year stint by programming Berlioz’s masterpiece L’Enfance du Christ, replacing the traditional Messiah. This was the first performance of this work in Perth in 32 years. Conducting from the stage, a chorus of “Angels” in Winthrop‘s foyer was testament to his skill.
The West Australian reviewer, Neville Cohn, in May 2010 headlined Jangoo Chapkana’s initial concert as conductor as an “Impressive Presentation” of Handel’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day and Bach’s Magnificat in D.
The 80th Anniversary of UWACS coincided with the appointment of Christopher van Tuinen as Conductor. He was instrumental in creating a variety of musical experience for the choir through contact with other choirs, musicians and orchestras. The choir appreciated the opportunity to sing with numerous professional WASO musicians and long-term accompanist Irene Shaw, who performed in Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle. Chris van Tuinen developed a return to closer relations with the UWA School (now Conservatorium) of Music leading to joint performances of Poulenc’s Gloria in 2011, Rachmaninov’s The Bells in 2013 and a highly successful performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. In 2015, choir members remarked that it was a joy to sing with younger voices.
Other collaborative performances were Verdi’s Requiem with the Fremantle Symphony Orchestra (FSO) in 2012, Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man with the Royal Agricultural Society of WA Brass (RASWA) in 2015, Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 with West Australian Youth Orchestra (WAYO) in 2013 and the Durufle and Faure Requiems with Dominic Perissinotto’s “Pipe Organ Plus” in 2014. “An Afternoon on Broadway” with Collegium Symphonic Chorus in 2011 provided light relief from the usual programming. The City of Canning World Arts outdoor concerts with Orff’s Carmina Burana in 2013, Phillip Glass’ Satyagraha in 2014 and “Gallipoli Voices” in 2015 were staged productions of song, dance and drama.
Individual choristers have participated in international performances since the choir’s 75th anniversary, including New York with Conductor John Rutter and in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna and Malta.
In 2017, under the baton of Christopher van Tuinen the choir performed Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony , later followed by the Australian Premiere of Rosetti’s Requiem and the Mozart Requiem. Premieres have continued to be a feature of the choir, to the delight of all.
At the end of 2018, Chris van Tuinen announced his retirement as Conductor after a long, productive and happy time for everyone involved. Towards the end of 2019, Kris Bowtell was appointed the new Conductor, the choir having, in the interim, been led by Sarah Mills Menogue.
For the first time in its history, in October 2019, the choir undertook a tour to China. This included Conductor Sarah Mills Menogue, accompanist Irene Shaw and soloists Katja Webb and Mark Alderson – as well as the choristers. Four concerts in four cities were performed over a week and a half and the tour was hailed as a great success by all.
The final concert of 2019 was another Australian Premiere performance, a collaboration with the PUCS choir and St Barnabas choir, of the Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn) Words from the Bible. Again, these collaborations provide the opportunityto undertake and perform works that otherwise would be not feasible for UWACS.
Weekly musicology and monthly singing technique lessons commenced in 2011 and successive annual weekend workshops and workshop days have been held. A restructured UWACS Website in 2020 enhanced marketing and administration of the choir. Downloadable music files on the website have facilitated home learning and practice during rehearsal seasons.
Ninety years on and the choir still contributes to University life. Over the years many substantial musical projects have been supported. This includes Conservatorium of Music students who have been presented with prizes for over sixty years. The current healthy membership and finances are a tribute to all past and present members. UWACS remains the third longest running choral society in Australia. It was with pride and joy that it celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2021, with a gala concert in May and a glorious Christmas concert featuring the Bach Magnificat and Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax.
Long may UWACS and its traditions prosper.