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Pure young voices shining for the world

Canberra’s Luminescence Children’s Choir at rehearsals for Sydney… from left, front row, Jim Hodgson (11), Nina Stachurski (12), Anneke Heidmann (12), Eugenia Sawczak (11), Anjea Byrne (12), Inara Beeby (12) and Ava Lumburner (12). Photo: Holly Treadaway

Canberra’s Luminescence Children’s Choir, a lively bunch of youthful treble choristers aged 10-16, will take the stage of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall between July 15 and 21 in the Gondwana World Choral Festival, reports HELEN MUSA.

NOTHING shines more brightly than the pure voices of young people singing together, as Canberra’s Luminescence Children’s Choir is about to show the world.

For this lively bunch of youthful treble choristers aged 10-16 will take the stage of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall between July 15 and 21 in the Gondwana World Choral Festival.

The week-long festival hosted by Sydney’s Gondwana Choirs will bring together more than 1000 young singers from Australia, Asia, North America and Europe, including Boston Children’s Chorus, the Estonian Television Girls’ Choir, the Inner Mongolia Youth Choir and Riga Cathedral Girls’ Choir.

Luminescence founder and artistic director AJ America, left, and accompanist Veronica Milroy. Photo: Peter Hislop

There’s a lot of hard work involved and a lot of serious musical networking, as we find when we catch up with Luminescence founder and artistic director, AJ America, at Ainslie Arts Centre, where she and accompanist/associate artistic director, Veronica Milroy, are herding lively vocalists for a regular Tuesday afternoon rehearsal.

America – her name is, unexpectedly, of Dutch origin – is an admired mezzo-soprano whose solo voice has been heard on film soundtracks, including Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia”. After stepping down late last year from conducting the Canberra Community Chorale, she now divides her time between Sydney and Canberra, where she first arrived to study history at the ANU in 2013.

As a child, America cut her teeth singing with the Sydney Children’s Choir and Gondwana Voices, both founded 30 years ago in 1989 by Lyn Williams, who is the brains behind the 17-concert festival. 

Readers brought up on eisteddfod singing will be surprised to hear that Williams claims choral music to be “a relatively new art form in Australia”, but it is true that under her leadership Gondwana has commissioned hundreds of new Australian works.

As for Luminescence, it came about in 2015 when America and Milroy, another former Gondwana singer, were teaching at Aranda Primary School’s after-school care. They formed a small chamber group with 10 kids that, by 2016, became a permanent group, with fledgling singers from all over Canberra. Their Luminescence Chamber Singers is an adult ensemble, separate from the children. 

Canberra’s Luminescence Children’s Choir at rehearsals for Sydney. Photo: Holly Treadaway

As well as more demanding rehearsals for sophisticated baroque, romantic and classical music, America and Milroy hold free sight-singing classes on Saturdays and “Little Lumi” classes for ages 8-12 on Monday afternoons.

Back at Ainslie Arts Centre, 15-year old Ava Vagnarelli and 13-year-old Wynton Johnstone, among the longest-serving members of Luminescence, are joined by 11-year-old Valdas Cameron, who chorus that through singing “you meet all kinds of talented people” and get to travel. 

They’ve been south to perform with The Young Voices of Melbourne, to the Festival of Voices in Hobart and next year they’re off to Finland, Latvia and Estonia. 

America agrees, saying: “Travelling is very important… it helps build pleasant relationships if children are together for 10 to 12 days rather than just one rehearsal a week… their singing becomes invigorated.”

“It’s challenging and sometimes a lot of fun,” Ava says, while the more voluble Wynton, an alto who wants to be a countertenor, says he also studies mandolin, piano and violin. 

Valdas, a classical guitar whiz kid from Currawang, says: “The best thing is friends I’ve made, how the choir sounds and how the voices work together to make something beautiful.” 

America says: “I have no expertise in changing voices, but we have an uncommon number of boys in the choir and they really love it.

“Luminescence is a place where all the kids have to learn to take responsibility for themselves.”

America and Milroy are busy rehearsing new compositions by Australia’s Paul Stanhope and American composer Nico Muhly, as well as other mainstays of the Luminescence repertoire – Mendelssohn, Bulgarian and Swedish folk tunes, songs in German and Latin music by Bjork and the Dirty Projectors.

Apart from the massed choirs at Sydney Opera House, the singers will also perform a twilight concert at Verbrugghen Hall alongside the Sydney Children’s Choir Junior Performing Choir, the Hunter Singers and Valla Voices. 

Then, as part of the Harbour City Series, they’ll sing with Nagoya Children’s Chorus at Sydney Conservatorium and at Emanuel School Performing Arts Centre in Randwick, America’s alma mater.

And the high point? That’s a new composition by yet another Gondwana alumna, Alice Chance, “Fiat Lux: The Light Cycle” – songs fittingly titled for a choir called Luminescence.

“Sounds of Australia” gala concert, Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, 7pm, Monday, July 15 and “Sounds of the World” gala concert, 3pm, Sunday, July 21. Book at

All Luminescence classes are at

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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