Youth choir sings its way to 50

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Senior chorister Bek Rose, centre, with members of the choir.

SCRATCH the surface of almost any major department or organisation in Canberra and you’re bound to find a former member of Woden Valley Youth Choir running it.

Now this venerable organisation, founded by Don Whitbread and his wife Barbara in February 1969, has turned 50 and this weekend they’re celebrating in high style at Llewellyn Hall.

“CityNews” caught up recently with Olivia Swift, the new director of the choir, who succeeds musical identities like Whitbread, Alpha Gregory and Kimberley Steele in the role. The coming celebration will be her debut concert with the choir.

A former student of composition with Larry Sitsky and Jim Cotter, she sees composition as a major focus but says these days it’s spread more evenly with her conducting work with Woden Valley and Kompactus Youth Choirs.

A graduate of the ANU School of Music, Swift has enjoyed several successful premieres of her own work in Sydney over the past two years.

“I grew up in Sydney, moved here for uni then went to Sydney Conservatorium while also living here,” she says.

During high school, she had sung with Gondwana Voices and Sydney Children’s Choir and in 2008, her twelve-tone piece for wind quintet was nominated for Encore. She also worked with well-known Australian composers like Paul Stanhope and Christopher Gordon at Gondwana Composers School

Olivia Swift

“I never formally started conducting but it was part of our aural lessons so I picked it up as I went along,” she says.

Swift is very excited to have Whitbread and Gregory on hand to conduct the “Alumni choir” in the concert.

“Alpha will conduct ‘Pemulwuy’, a song by Australian composer Paul Jarman that she commissioned about 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary – a piece dear to her heart,” she says,

“Don will conduct the Woden Valley Youth Choir anthem ‘Let There Be Peace’, a piece that he made part of the tradition and which is now performed at every choir concert.”

The pervasiveness of music in our lives is something Swift lives and breathes, but in addition, she says, “a musical education benefits you for the rest of your life, giving your skills and teaching you even something as simple as punctuality – if you’re late, you’re letting down your team”.

Another life skill, she notes, is the benefit of hard work.

“Kids realise the challenge of being worked hard and having to go home and do their own practice… being in a choir is a metaphor for life,” she says.

The choir has an age range from 6 up to 25, with Swift conducting Australis Voices for ages 11 to 21, Jade McFaul conducting Nova choir ages 8 to 10, Lucus Allerton leading Centauri choir for boys with transitioning voices and Swift also conducting Borealis choir for 10 to 12 year olds.

The theme of Saturday’s concert she says will be “our song, our stories our history”.

“We’ve gone for songs that display culture and history, like ‘Pemulwuy,’ and like Stephen Leek‘s cane cutter song, about the near-slave treatment of cane cutters in our past,” she says.

There’ll also be an arrangement of, “our song”, a romantic song by Kate Miller-Heidke.

And yes, Swift has written a piece to be performed as a finale.

“The choir wrote me some lyrics and they chose the theme of growing up, looking back on childhood and when things were simple and anticipating the future… It’ll be a world premiere,” she says.

Woden Valley Youth Choir 50th Anniversary Concert, Llewellyn Hall, 7pm, Saturday August 24. Bookings to


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Helen Musa
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