Robert Braham has been conducting Perth choirs for decades with the kind of magic that can extract joyful, enthusiastic singing even from teenage school boys. His new ensemble Voyces is attracting attention for its clean, fresh sound. They have performed at the opening of the 2016 Perth International Arts Festival,  collaborated with artists the calibre of Emma Matthews and Sara Macliver and built a reputation for commissioning Australian composers. Voyces’ debut album will be launched this week at a concert called Hush.

Robert Braham. Photos Nic Babic Photography

What music gets your heart racing?

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto springs to mind but virtuosic jazz playing is just as good. Wycliffe Gordon on trombone is a current favourite but I always come back to Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra where everyone is a virtuoso player.

What calms you down?

There are some wonderful current composers of choral music and vocal solos. Henryk Gorecki’s  Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (No. 3, Op. 36) for soprano and orchestra is just the ticket but on the a cappella choral side the works of Ola Gjeilo, Paul Mealor and others are both rich and calming at the same time. These and other modern choral composers know how to write so expressively for choir. Voyces will do some Ola Gjeila in their September concert.

What do you sing along to?

Symphonies mainly. I think this comes from my time as a horn player, especially the Romantic repertoire. Of course I cannot help but sing along with the symphonic choir repertoire; Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the works of Vaughan Williams. The list would be long. It is what I conducted for 14 years with the Perth Oratorio Choir.

What was your original vision behind the creation of Voyces choir?

The original vision behind Voyces was a youth aged choir who would sing a lot of contemporary classical music and especially Australian composers. After the WA Youth Music Association choir finished up a group of ex Trinity College boys who were members of the WAYMA Chorale wanted to start a new choir. It was based in St Joseph’s Church in Subiaco for a while and so was called the St Joseph’s Chamber Choir. Now we are based at Trinity College but still have our annual Christmas concert at St Joseph’s. The age of the choir has also expanded.

The choir membership has always been based on selecting highly trained musicians who get what it is to sing quality choral contemporary music. They don’t all have to be highly trained singers but they do need to have good musical skills and be quick learners. We love presenting quality modern choral works that our audience will enjoy. Sometimes that involves breaking down the traditional choir model of stand and sing. At our Spin concert, last year, we had several pieces where the choir moved around the stage while singing with images projected onto a screen and one piece where we started in the auditorium with a dramatized political narrative and ended on stage with some very intense singing. You can pretty well guarantee that the audience will hear works they have never heard before at a Voyces concert. Always interesting but also accessible. With our June 10 concert the program will be all Australian works including works for choir, percussion and strings. Every piece is novel and musically wonderful.

Voyces sing Night by Matthew Orlovich, 2016.

How are you preparing for the Hush concert on June 10th at the Government House Ballroom?

The preparation for the concert is tied in with the preparation for the recordings. The choir is doing such detailed work for the recording that it is ideal for concert preparation. The difference is we mainly sing concerts from memory but record with the scores so we have yet to test how the memorization is going. I am sure with all the recording time the memory work will almost take care of itself. Fingers crossed.

Voyces will also release an album as part of this concert – why did you decide to make an album?

Our public has been asking about a CD recording for quite a while now. It is time I think to put some of the repertoire down that we think defines who we are as a choir. We were also very keen to record ‘Hooves of Fate’, a work we commissioned from Australian composer Dan Walker as well as other pieces that we either premiered, or, were versions of compositions that have not been recorded.

Voyces has commissioned and performed a significant amount of new choral music in the five years since its inception. Why is it important to be singing music by contemporary Australian composers?

There are wonderful young and established Australian composers writing choral music. There are also a multitude of good choirs in Australia these days. They should be championing Australian music. I  love building the relationship between a choir and a composer. It is a very personal thing having music written for your choir. It also comes with great challenges and ultimately  (even with an open conversation between the composer and yourself) the end result can still be full of wonderful musical surprises. I have never been disappointed with a commissioned work. You have to trust but also be prepared to take a risk. 

At Trinity College we commissioned Paul Jarman to write a work for the Senior Chorale for our USA tour. Paul warned me that it was not what our original intentions had been but thought I and more importantly the boys would love it. He even left a section open to workshop with the boys over a weekend. By the end of the weekend the boys owned and knew the piece. It was a great hit. If anyone has a youth male choir try it. It is called ‘Let Go of My Hand’.

Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

That is the million-dollar question. Music is tied up with life, with the evolution of humans since before language. It is a part of every culture. It represents the extremes of emotion, it lifts us and it calms us. It is a great discipline to be involved with for there are so many skills in the art of music making. It lights up more of the brain than most other human activities so it has to be mentally healthy as well. It is something we all should have in our lives at some level. I think it was the great conductor Zubin Mehta commenting on an orchestral concert in the middle east who said something like: while the audience is absorbed in the music they at least have peace in their lives. It is a nice thought.

Voyces with Sara Macliver at St Joseph’s Church Subiaco

You have a soft spot for choral music – why the voice?

Choirs were not my first choice of music making. I sang at school but mainly played orchestral music through university. Eight years in the orchestral pit with the Western Australian Arts Orchestra playing for opera in particular was a great education watching conductors and singers interact. My first real conducting work was in music theatre. From there I took on the Perth Oratorio Choir and discovered a whole world of large-scale choral music. So getting into choral work happened slowly at first and was paralleled by conducting opportunities. 

Your day job is director of music at Trinity College. The only time most Aussies practice communal singing (!) is at the footy – how do you go about teaching school boys to sing?

There is a great culture of singing at Trinity established over many years. Boys need to be given the chance to sing with other boys and the more the merrier. If you can get them through the vocal transition successfully they progress from loving their treble voices to loving their mature voices. They love bold sounds, they love rich harmonies and they love rhythmic interest. And if they love it they bring their mates. If you can build a culture where the whole senior school sings then developing expressive choral singing in teenage boys is just a refinement. It is always hard work but once they are hooked with quality repertoire there is no turning back. We also make sure the younger boys get the opportunity to hear the older boys. Aspiration means a lot in a boys’ school and a bit of competition never hurts.

Voyces perform Tanguendo by Oscar Escalada with 
dancers Geoff Hendrikse and Jelena Martinovic, 2016.

The choir will be heading to Choralfest later this month. What will your role be there?

Voyces is a guest choir at Choralfest. It is our second venture to the Australian National Choral Association festival. We will sing two separate programs of Australian music from our CD along with other fine Australian choirs. It is a great chance to network for the choristers and conductors and there will be wonderful international people there to work with and learn from. It is not often that choirs of this level actually get together and sing to a choral community so it is a real buzz. Always a bit of pressure but that will sharpen the performance.

Where did you learn the skills to direct a choir?

On the job would have to be the best answer to this question. Attending master classes and symposiums, observing and discussing conducting with other conductors and then implementing changes to what you do over many years. It is an ongoing process. Recently I attended the Vancouver Chamber Choir conductors’ symposium working with Jon Washburn. It was an intense week working with a professional choir but it was highly motivating.

Can you describe the unique sound of Voyces?

It is the sound of young, switched on musicians who love what they do. It is fresh, clean and always exciting.

Robert Braham

What is your favourite place in Perth?

I love our back garden. It is such a calming place to sit and enjoy. I have always loved the view of the city from Kings Park. It must be one of the best city views in Australia. I also love the combination of the old and new in some of Perth’s architecture – like St Mary’s Cathedral and of course the Mt Lawley strip for Saturday morning shopping.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?

I love art especially pastels and used to do quite a bit of drawing. Maybe it is something I will get back to when life is not so hectic. The gym has become quite addictive in recent years. I am also a sucker for good Nordic Noir and BBC dramas. Of course there is always the cricket.

Thank you to Robert Braham for participating in the Celebrity Soft Spot series. Voyces will launch their debut CD at the Hush concert on June 10th. For more information about upcoming concerts go to the Voyces website or check them out on Facebook.