“I invite you to dismiss all notions that young people are, in any way, lesser artists,” Gondwana’s Artistic Director and Founder Lyn Williams told the sell-out crowd in the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall, gathered for the gala opening concert of the week-long Gondwana World Choral Festival which celebrates the organisation’s 30th anniversary. It’s a sentiment that has driven Williams’ work with choirs over the last three decades, and in this ambitious gala program, which saw some of Australia’s finest children’s and youth choirs performing music by some of Australia’s finest choral composers, Williams made sure it was an invitation impossible to resist.

While choirs from around the world will perform all week at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and in the closing gala, Sounds of the World, at the Opera House on Sunday, this concert put Australian talent in the spotlight, beginning with the Gondwana Indigenous Choir.

Eric Avery, Lara Miller, and the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir. Photo © Robert Catto

A gently pulsing, double-stopped drone from violinist Eric Avery, sustained with a loop pedal, opened musical proceedings – following an acknowledgement of the land’s traditional owners by chorister Lara Miller – before Avery began weaving improvisatory lines over the top, soon adding his own voice in chant, evoking multitudes in the accumulating layers. The drone lingered after Avery left the stage, underscoring the voices of the Gondwana Indigenous Choir, who followed the Acknowledgement of Country with a performance of Shellie Morris’ Li-Anthawirriyarra a Kurija, in Yanuwa language (one of six Indigenous languages appearing in this concert), alongside the Borroloola Songwomen. What followed was a wide-ranging showcase of diverse, complex and beautiful choral writing.

Alice Chance’s The Eye of the Sound Storm saw the Sydney Children’s Choir Juniors –decked out in oversized business attire and conducted by Amandine Petit – perform a whimsical love song to quietude in the face of urban sonic overload, their bodies swaying with the music’s stormy winds, against the rush of Sally Whitwell on piano.

Gondwana ChoirsGerib Sik and the Gondwana Indigenous Choir. Photo © Robert Catto

Heralding their performance with ringing blasts from three large shells, the Gerib Sik Dance Troupe performed traditional dances from Mer Island, Torres Strait, before they were joined in song and dance by the Gondwana Indigenous Choir and Sydney Children’s Choir Juniors (still in oversized white shirts) for three Songs of Mer Island, arranged by Chance.

Gondwana commissioned two new works for this program, the first by American composer Nico Muhly, who set two texts by Australian poet and activist Roberta Sykes, taking words common to the final lines of both poems, Only I, as the title. The Sydney Children’s Choir, led by Williams, gave an impressive account of Muhly’s crystalline harmonies and colourful vocal writing, Whitwell’s stabs from the piano foreshadowing the darker edge of the lines “A multi-coloured army / of words / tears / emotions” in A Poem For Poets before the music’s motoring stilled in the more reflective Of Insecurity, the words “what is wrong?” repeated obsessively. The singers proved just as deft in the taut, swinging crescendos and leaps of Paul Stanhope’s The Acrobat, which sets text by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Gondwana ChoirsThe Combined Australian Festival Choirs perform the world premiere of Paul Stanhope’s I am Martuwarra. Photo © Robert Catto

Stanhope was responsible for the second world premiere on the program, bringing the first half of the concert to a close after a performance by Gondwana Latitude 34, led by Elizabeth Scott, of Matthew Orlovich’s vividly painted Butterflies Dance and Luke Byrne’s poignant Foundling. Stanhope set a poem by Steve Hawke, I am Martuwarra (the Bunuba name for the Fitzroy River), performed by the combined choirs. Hawke wrote the libretto for Stanhope’s dramatic cantata, Jandamarra: Sing for the Country (Ngalanybarra Muwayi.u), with the Bunuba people billed as creative partners. Here Hawke has crafted a poem in English but incorporating words from the Kija, Bunuba and Nyikina languages from the central Kimberly, in consultation with language centres for each. Written for large forces, the music surges mightily forwards at times before easing into quiet, tranquil pools of sound, a trio of percussionists (augmented by hand percussion in the choir) and Whitwell on piano, painting with the choir a detailed landscape as the text moved between Kija, Bunuba and Nyikina perspectives and anthemic music for the river itself.

Cellist Julian Smiles joined Whitwell, Williams and the combined forces of Gondwana Latitude 34, Sydney Children’s Choirs and Brisbane’s young adult choir Resonance of Birralee to open the second half with Dan Walker’s soaring The Ether of Infinity before the Young Adelaide Voices took the stage, with conductor Christie Anderson and pianist Jamie Cock, to sing a work by the choir’s composer in residence Rachel Bruerville. In Mirror Mirror, Bruerville – whose work has just seen her, like Alice Chance, announced as a finalist in the Art Music Awards – riffs on the magic mirror from the Snow White fairytale to explore ideas of beauty and self-worth, the composer offering up clean unison lines to splintering reverb-like effects, all dispatched confidently by the choir. The Young Adelaide Voices followed the Bruerville up with the rhythmic Narungga song Gurdi (Quandongs), arranged by Chester Schultz, with the song’s English words by Aunty Josie Agius.

The combined Sydney Children’s Choirs. Photo © Robert Catto

Indonesian choreographer and dancer Murtala, from Suara Indonesia Dance, brought a change of pace, leading the combined Sydney Children’s Choirs in a suite of visually stunning sitting dances from Aceh, Ratoh Duek, with Indonesian drums driving the hypnotic patterning and sinuous ensemble movements of the choristers.

Brisbane’s young adult choir Resonance of Birralee displayed stunning diction in Orlovich’s Tides of Ocean and Naomi Crellin’s comic piece Chatterbox – which got plenty of laughs from the audience and featured a great bluesy solo from Isabella Cehajic – before Sam Allchurch led the Gondwana Young Men’s Choir in a bristling rendition of Stephen Leek’s arrangement of Waltzing Matilda.

Cairns-based Indigenous choir Marliya, backed up by the Sydney Children’s Choir, sung an uplifting ode to friendship, Marliya – “bush honey” in Yindjibarndi, or, as in the song’s lyrics, “nothing as sweet as you my friend” – by Felix Riebl and Ollie McGill (both of Cat Empire fame), before the combined choirs assembled for the concert’s rousing finale, Paul Jarman’s One Pure Voice.

There was tangible excitement in the full-to-bursting concert hall, with cheers for the composers, conductors and pianists a sign of the bubbling enthusiasm within the choir stalls and without. There may have been a wide range of ages and experience levels on stage, but there was no doubting the high quality achieved across the board, and in repertoire that certainly didn’t set a low bar. An auspicious and joyful start to Gondwana’s birthday celebrations.

The Gondwana World Choral Festival runs until July 21